Holy Week: Black Messiah
Part 3: Who will rise next?
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Archival news narrator: Memo. To: S.A.C. Boston. From: the director, FBI. Subject: Counterintelligence program.
Goals: One, prevent the coalition of militant Black-nationalist groups. An effective coalition of Black-nationalist groups might be the first step toward a real Mau Mau in America. Two, prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant Black-nationalist movement. Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position. King could be a very real contender for this position.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Starting in 1956, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI ran a secret program to spy on so-called subversive movements in the U.S. It was named the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. Its true extent wasn’t known until years later, when a group of activists broke into an FBI office and mailed over 1,000 classified documents to journalists. Through all the major moments of the Black freedom struggle, the FBI listened. They watched. They sabotaged.
The program expanded during the mid-’60s, with the rise of Black militant groups, and the beginnings of uprisings in America’s ghettos.
Reporter: While ghetto problems deepen, the Black militants gather and the crowds at their meetings get bigger. Many of them will not speak to whites at all. They have given up on the white man’s world and are desperately determined to make a Black world totally separate, totally and proudly black.
Newkirk: To J. Edgar Hoover, the danger was in the potential for any Black leader to help spark a Black insurgency.
Reporter: The FBI had trouble distinguishing between nonviolent Blacks and militant revolutionaries. To the FBI, the whole movement appeared dangerous, particularly if one man could unify millions of American Blacks.
Newkirk: Hoover wasn’t alone in his belief. In fact, Black radical leaders also thought that major riots in 1967 in the Black ghettos in Newark and Detroit had revolutionary potential. Folks like Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers out West built their philosophies on the hope that a riot in a Black ghetto could become something more—that they could start a chain reaction to topple white supremacy in America. In 1968, SNCC Chairman H. Rap Brown said that this revolution was imminent.
H. Rap Brown: We stand on the eve of a Black revolution, brothers. Masses of our people are in the streets. They’re fighting tit for tat, tooth for tooth, an eye for an eye, and a life for a life. The rebellions that we see are merely dress rehearsals for the revolution that’s to come.
Newkirk: The FBI and COINTELPRO’s methods grew more and more extreme. In the late ’60s they moved to outright blackmail and disruption schemes. Even after King was killed, COINTELPRO continued to watch his friends and family and sow discord in their ranks.
The FBI was probably also watching Stokely Carmichael on the first night of riots. That night, April 4, Stokely and his watchers had been caught off guard by the fury of the streets.
The next day, April 5, would be different. Everybody assumed the riots were coming back. But just how they came back was the question. Could Black rage and grief be channeled and directed into revolution? Would they fizzle out on its own? Or would they be crushed by the state?
Newkirk: Part 3: “Black Messiah.”
Newkirk: By the morning of April 5, less than 24 hours after Dr. King was killed, the riots had already made their mark on D.C. Fires had consumed much of 14th Street, along with some other areas. People left behind burned buildings, abandoned cars, and debris, all still smoking.
That morning, tourists were supposed to come in by the thousands for the Cherry Blossom Festival. But they stayed away.
Most people who worked downtown stayed away too. What was left was an eerie quiet. The breath before the next plunge into chaos. Still, Frank Smith was trying his hardest to get back home from Mississippi.
Frank Smith: I flew back to Washington. I got to the National Airport, and I couldn’t—taxicab driver didn’t want to take me. He said, “I’m not going to Washington. That place is on fire.”
Newkirk: When he finally found a cab, the driver would only go as far as Connecticut Avenue. Frank had to walk a ways to his home in Adams Morgan. But he had to get there. His wife was there. She had been there during the first night of riots, and she was terrified.
Frank Smith: She was scared to go out the house, you know. And we talkin’ about people—she had been in Mississippi with me. She was in Philadelphia, Mississippi, when the kids were killed down there. And we had seen violence. But this was very different. This was, it was like chaos.
Newkirk: Frank had led protests and demonstrations across the country. He had been with SNCC since the beginning, and his work in Mississippi was regularly dangerous. He’d helped name the organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and dedicated himself to movement tactics. Even when things got rowdy, he was trained. He was used to each demonstration having a concrete set of objectives. But he just couldn’t get his arms around what had happened in D.C. It was emotional. There was no organization.
Frank Smith: There was no set of demands. There was no goals that we could see. There was no—it was just people just reacting. And, you know, any time you’re leading a demonstration, there’s always a chance it’ll get out of hand. There’s always a chance. And in this case, just what it looked like to me, was that it was out of hand.
Newkirk: But around the city, some people were trying to give shape to Black rage.
At Howard University, most students hadn’t gone out on the night of April 4. But the next morning, activists on campus tried to galvanize students who still didn’t really know what to do.
Tony Gittens: People were very, very surprised. They weren’t ready to do what they were doing over on 14th Street, start tearing the place up.
Newkirk: I visited Howard with Tony Gittens to see his old stomping grounds. We checked out the dorm where he and his friends were playing cards on the night King was killed. We walked past the green where his friends had tried to organize a rally the morning after. He says, that morning, the tension was building.
Gittens: You know, every place I went people were angry. It was unbelievable. Some women, the young ladies, were crying. That was the sentiment. Nobody was passive about it.
Newkirk: That morning, The Hilltop, the campus newspaper, released an essay saying basically that nonviolence was dead.
“Much of the argument that through nonviolent marching and civil disobedience the Black will be liberated has no doubt been totally erased from the minds of the Black people in this country. There is a sense of outrage that another Black man has been murdered, and he a spokesman for nonviolence.”
They pushed even further. The writers of the op-ed said that one of the lessons of King’s death might be that:
“Liberation calls for more than we have heretofore been willing to pay.”
It was a provocative statement to make just after an assassination. But it was aimed at their fellow students and faculty. People who they thought were happy to sit in the ivory tower while the world burned. Tony was ready for a fight.
Gittens: Nobody was going to mess with us that day. [Laughs.] No security guard, none of that. They weren’t going to mess with us. They knew better.
Newkirk: That same morning, the leaders of SNCC, also tried their best to provoke people into action. They had recently dropped the whole nonviolent thing, and changed their name to the Student National Coordinating Committee. They invited journalists to their headquarters.
Floyd McKissick: This press conference will be for only five minutes. As soon as the press conference is over, you gentlemen will not leave anything in here that you didn’t bring in here. Your pens, your cigarette butts—you take them with you. If you wasting the water, you have to clean it up.
Newkirk: The press conference had actually been planned before the assassination to speak out against the incarceration of the current chairman of SNCC, H. Rap Brown. Brown was accused of inciting a riot in Maryland the summer before.
McKissick: Right, here, immediately right, is Stokely Carmichael, who is staff here in Washington, D.C.
Stokely Carmichael: We were very upset that Reverend Brown had been in jail for 41 days. And Governor Agnew of Maryland still seems to persist with his nonsensical charges. Now, we want the brother out of jail next week when he comes to trial.
Newkirk: In the footage of the press conference, all the SNCC leaders are standing together behind a table full of microphones. The other SNCC guys are wearing all black. Stokely stands out. He’s tall. He’s commanding. He’s got sunglasses on, and a long jacket. Behind him there are two posters, one of Malcolm X and another of H. Rap Brown. But he starts talking about Martin Luther King.
Carmichael: When white America killed Dr. King last night, she opened the eyes for every Black man in this country. When white America got rid of Marcus Garvey, she did it and she said he was an extremist; he was crazy. When they got rid of Brother Malcolm X, they said he was preaching hate; he deserved what he got. But when they got rid of brother Martin Luther King, they had absolutely no reason to do so. He was the one man in our race who was trying to teach our people to have love, compassion, and mercy for what white people had done. When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us.
Newkirk: As far as the FBI’s potential Black messiahs went, Stokely was on the list right behind King. It was Stokely who had been out on the scene the previous night, when riots started. The media was already blaming him for fanning the flames. He gave voice to all the people who felt like this was more than just the assassination of a single person. King was supposed to be the last best hope for a reckoning without blood. Stokely promised retribution.
Carmichael: The rebellions that have been occurring around the cities of this country is just light stuff to what is about to happen. We have to retaliate for the death of our leaders. The execution of those deaths will not be in the courtrooms; they’re going to be in the streets of the United States of America.
Newkirk: Stokely was talking about the thing white people had been afraid of for generations: a race war.
Then he opened up for questions.
Reporter: Mr Carmichael, when you say the execution of those deaths will be not in a courtroom but the streets, are you going to be a little more specific about the course of action you expect?
Carmichael: I think that is quite explicit.
Reporter: You expect an organized rebellion?
Carmichael: I think it is quite explicit. We die every day. We die in Vietnam for the honkies. Why don’t we die at home for our people? Black people are not afraid to die. We die all the time. We die in your jails. We die in your ghettos. We die in your rat-infested homes. We die a thousand deaths every day. So we’re not afraid to die; today we’re going to die for our people.
Newkirk: The night before, on 14th and U, Stokely had been conflicted. He was there when the riots started, but he also tried to clear out businesses to avoid casualties. He warned young Black folks to stay away from police and tried to temper their fantasies about fighting the military with rocks and bricks. Now there were no more calls for caution. Like everything he did, some of this was for show, to shock people. But he was also speaking from the heart. It sure did seem like he thought this could be the revolution.
Reporter 2: Stokely, what do you think is ultimately leading to? A bloodbath in which nobody wins?
Carmichael: First, my name is Mr. Carmichael. And secondly, Black people will survive America.
Reporter 2: What accomplishments or objectives do you visualize from the retaliation? What do you think you’ll accomplish?
Carmichael: If a Black man can’t do nothing in this country, then we will stand up on our feet and die like men. If that’s our only act of manhood, then God damn it, we’re going to die. Tired of living on our stomachs.
Reporter 3: Do you fear for your life?
Carmichael: The hell with my life! You should fear for yours. I know I’m going to die. I know I’m gonna die. [Applause.]
Newkirk: Stokely’s speech immediately made the rounds on radio and television. White politicians and no small number of Black leaders condemned him. Even Sammy Davis Jr. came out to tell militants to try and keep the peace.
Sammy Davis Jr.: Now is the time for the militant leaders to say, “All right, baby; let’s hold ourselves. You’re angry; you’re mad, man—let’s hold it now and see if whitey’s going to come up with it.”
Newkirk: Stokely Carmichael had been waiting for years. He had been waiting since he crossed the bridge in Selma, since he inspired people in Mississippi with Black Power. He was tired of waiting. He was trying to reach others who he thought might be impatient too: young folks who gravitated to Black Power—kids like Theophus Brooks.
Theophus Brooks: We looked at it this way: Martin Luther King, we respected him but he was soft. We look at Malcolm X, Black Panthers, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael—we looked at them like that was our heroes. Man we loved them. Martin Luther King, we looked at him as being a good person, a nice person, but he weak and he soft. You know, turn the other cheek and all that.
Newkirk: Theophus Brooks was a student at Cardozo High School, just a few blocks away from the epicenter of the riots in D.C. Before the assassination, he didn’t follow news about Jim Crow or voting rights or integration. He was too busy with running the streets, and chasing girls.
Brooks: First time I ever saw a gun, a girl put a derringer on me in the cafeteria because I was messing with another girl. And she found out and pulled a derringer on me. I was scared to death.
Newkirk: Also, football. He was a star safety for Cardozo High School.
Brooks: All of a sudden, in 11th grade—something clicked in my head. And not only did I go football crazy, but I turned into a vicious-type ballplayer. I don’t know what happened.
Newkirk: On the first night of riots, Theophus stayed home. A lot of his friends did. He still had to go to class in the morning. City officials hoped keeping schools open would keep kids off the streets. But it didn’t work.
Brooks: I was in the classroom at about 10, 11 o’clock in the day, and people ran in to say, “They rioting on 14th Street. Man, they stealin’ everything!”
Newkirk: By late morning, the students in Cardozo were out in the streets. Theophus was with them.
Brooks: It seemed like everybody broke out like it was recess. We broke out and went up to 14th Street.
Newkirk: What did you see when you got there?
Brooks: Maybe about 2,000 or 3,000 people. When I got up there, they had burned most everything down.
Lawson: Somebody hollered, “Get the white people; get the white people.” People started grabbing things, throwing at cars, trucks, at anybody that was driving was white.
Newkirk: Across town, on the east side of D.C., Vanessa Lawson was in the streets too. And she was angry. Her teacher used to go on and on about just how important King was. Her mother and grandmother loved King. And Vanessa was fed up with having to move to the projects and with how things were going in her life. So she chose to join the crowd.
Vanessa Lawson: And we participated. You know, I’m sorry to say I participated in that riot. I mean, I played a part in it.
Newkirk: In the Cardozo neighborhood, Theophus Brooks returned to the blocks that had burned just the night before. Many of the stores had already been cleaned out. But the students still wanted to do something.
Brooks: But when I got up there, a lot of stuff was gone. But then after that—it was maybe about 3:30, 4 o’clock—maybe 200 of us went to Cardozo. Now, if you know 13th Street at Cardozo, it’s a real hill going up.
Newkirk: Oh, yeah I know that hill.
Brooks: Okay, we were standing on each side of the hill throwing bricks at cars that looked like they had white people in it.
Newkirk: By the afternoon, Black neighborhoods in D.C. were back in full rebellion. The night before had all been unpredictable. It could’ve been a one-off thing. But the second night, April 5, was even more intense than the first. This would not be over soon.
Reporter: Tossing tear gas into the crowd. But that didn’t deter the Negroes … [shouting]
Reporter: … to see whether they could get a big radio–TV–record-player combination into a small, foreign-built car. It just wouldn’t fit.
Newkirk: Even in all the chaos, even as disturbances erupted in neighborhoods all across D.C., it was hard to imagine that this was the revolution that Stokely had promised. Theophus and his friends never got political. They were not being galvanized by a Black messiah—living or dead—to go to the White House or overthrow anybody. Theophus says they didn’t even really think much about King. Their response was more visceral. They stood on the street for hours, just throwing bricks. Because they could.
Brooks: And from 3:30 to about six, they must have broke about 100, 200 car windows.
Newkirk: He doesn’t think any of the drivers were seriously hurt, but still. The basic reality of the kids’ situation had been reversed. Police had always been untouchable. Across D.C., they were known for harassing and beating Black kids. But now the kids were throwing bricks at white folks’ cars and the police couldn’t do anything about it. It was exhilarating.
Brooks: They weren’t shooting anybody. It was like, Don’t do this; don’t do that. Stop, stop, stop this. You know, they wasn’t pulling out guns. And they arrested a few people, but it was just like a mob takeover. They took over and there weren’t nothing you could do about it.
Reporter 1: Aside from responding with tear gas, the officers generally ignored the bricks and bottles thrown at them. They knew that they were seriously understrength for any major outbreak of violence, and many of them were hoping for a call up of the National Guard or—what happened—the eventual deployment of Army troops.
Reporter 2: One policeman took off his gas mask, looked around, and asked if the National Guard had been called. “We need them,” he said. “We can’t hold this tonight. We’re losing.”
Newkirk: Frank Smith went out too. He thought that his duty as a SNCC veteran was to help keep people safe, or to organize them if he could. But he was skeptical that what he was seeing could turn into anything more.
Frank Smith: I don’t think that I ever thought this might be the revolution.
Newkirk: He was worried. The police were one thing, but he was afraid that people were going to get themselves hurt or killed when the military came.
Frank Smith: They got themselves in a position that no revolutionary army ever wants to be in, which is that it’s now facing down with an enemy with much more resources and much more gun power.
Scott Peters (journalist): Mayor Walter Washington has clamped a 5:30 p.m. curfew on the city. The presidential executive order has brought four companies of soldiers into the city. One is deployed around the downtown area; that includes the White House. Another is centered around the Capitol Hill. The other two are in the northwest section of the city. Additional soldiers are standing by for duty if needed. The president signed the order at the request of city officials.
Newkirk: As night fell and the hours went on, more and more students like Theophus Brooks poured into the streets. Protestors reignited the fires from the previous night and set new buildings ablaze.
Peters: Scott Peters, United Press International, the White House. President Johnson has ordered about 500 federal troops into Washington, D.C., in order to restore law to the city wracked by fires and looting.
Newkirk: The flames radiated out from the ghettos. They spread to just a few blocks away from the White House.
Peters: Two companies of soldiers are deployed in the worst-troubled area. One is near Capitol Hill, the fourth in the downtown area, which includes the White House.
Smoke from fires in downtown Washington is visible here at the White House. Police cars and ambulances are moving up and down the streets, the streets themselves jammed with traffic, the sidewalks crawling with people, some waiting for buses or trying to find taxis to go home. Some are spectators; some are looters. The White House gates are closed and White House policemen stand behind them. Normal routine has come to a halt in this part of the city. A group of Negro youths passed the White House gates a few minutes ago, carrying what looked to be transistor radios and other small appliances. They taunted White House police at the gates, one yelling “Shoot me! Shoot me!” while his companions laughed.
Newkirk: The police were outnumbered. Across the United States, fires burned in most big cities. A lot of the people on the streets were like Theophus Brooks and Vanessa Lawson: young folks who were just out there, because they could be. But politicians worried that Stokely’s vision might be coming true, that riots might be sustained, organized, even revolutionary. Governors mobilized state National Guards and started calling the White House for military assistance.
John Dennis (journalist): This is John Dennis in Boston for United Press International. Several thousand Massachusetts National Guardsmen are on the alert here in the Boston area tonight …
Dean Bailey (journalist): Dean Baily, United Press International, Chicago. Mayor Daley, in conjunction with his superintendent of police, was asking that the National Guard be put on standby alert …
Dennis: … Lieutenant Governor Francis Sargent, says the move “is a precautionary measure.”
Bailey: … Acting Illinois Governor Sam Shapiro acceded to the request, and 6,000 Guardsmen are assembling at armories. They may be needed on the streets. Fires have broken out. There has been shooting; there has been looting. Most of the trouble is concentrated on the West Side, a predominantly Negro area. All Chicago firemen are on duty.
Newkirk: By the time Vanessa Lawson got back inside, it was dark. She heard her mother talking on the phone to her brother Vincent. He went to high school out by his grandmother’s house off H Street. They were rioting there too. People were breaking into the stores in the business district, including the department store where Vanessa’s family shopped.
Vanessa Lawson: He left and went looting. Him and his friends went out. Morton’s was one of the places he went. He had other stuff too, so he called my mom and told her, “I got you three boxes, the right size and the right color.”
Newkirk: He was proud. He and Vanessa had seen their mother struggling. They’d tried to give her their own money to buy stockings when she could only afford a pair or two. And now Vincent had three boxes, the right size and color. Their mom couldn’t even be that mad.
Lawson: And she’s laughing and crying at the same time and telling him, “Do not leave back out that house, you hear me? Do not leave back out that house.”
Newkirk: But then, a little while later, Vanessa’s grandma called to say that Vincent had left again. That he was back out on the streets.
Lawson: My grandmother called and said he wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the house. And the kids are running around like crazy.
Newkirk: Vanessa’s mother was worried. She lashed out. She put the responsibility on Vincent’s older brother Glen to find him.
Lawson: She told him, “Go get your brother.” And he left; he left back out.
Newkirk: In darkness, as chaos was spreading, Glen tried to make it six miles—over to 8th and H Streets, the neighborhood where their grandmother lived. He was trying to do what his mother told him: Don’t come home without Vincent.
Lawson: And he’s looking everywhere for him. And, you know, and the National Guard’s coming out now and they want everybody off the streets.
Newkirk: By the end of the night, nobody had heard from Vincent.
Lawson: And I just remember, you know, it’s just like hours and hours and hours. He didn’t ever come home.
Newkirk: Vanessa often talks about how she and Vincent had this, like, spiritual or metaphysical connection. She says she could feel how he was feeling, even when they weren’t together. And on that night, she felt … dread.
Lawson: Let me tell you, his heart was beating so fast. His heart was beating so fast. My brother’s heart was beating so fast. I’m sitting at home calm, and I’m feeling my heart is racing. I said, you know, something is wrong. Something is wrong. I kept telling my mother, something is wrong.
Newkirk: They all wanted to go back out and look. To keep searching until they found Vincent or could find out what had happened to him. But by then, troops from the Army’s 82nd Airborne division had been fully mobilized. That evening, their boots marched and their trucks rolled down D.C. streets—the streets where Vincent and Vanessa raked leaves, where Theophus played football, where Tony reported for his college paper. Army units, held back in reserve from Vietnam, swept across the district using tear gas, isolating all those Black neighborhoods from one another. The occupation of the city was beginning.