Interview with Cleveland Sellers
QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

How was it decided, the call for Black Power to come up in the, in the march?

CLEVELAND SELLERS:

Well I think the, that the call for Black Power, per se, ah, was not designed as a, as a, ah, a term that would come up at any particular time. I think it was, it was just the timing of the Greenwood demonstration and rally. Each night after the marchers had taken the, the 20 or 30 miles there would be a rally. And we would have, ah, Martin King would speak and Floyd McKissick would speak and then Stokely would speak. The next night they would revert the order and you'd have, ah, Floyd McKissick, Stokely and then Martin King. And it would change up every night. Ah, one of the things that was happening along the way was that, ah, Black folk would come out to see Martin King. They'd heard about him. They had never seen him. Thought they would never, ever see him. And it was, it was a good feeling. Because they came to touch the hem of the garment. And I think in a lot of instances Martin was kind of embarrassed by it. Because they would literally kiss his feet and bring him something, a drink of water, an apple, an orange or something. They just wanted to, to be in the area. They could not allow this opportunity to pass them by. Ah, Martin Luther King was going to be walking down the street and they would come from 20 and 30 and 40 and 50 miles away just to be able to see him. And they would just, ah, there would be groups along the highways of just sharecroppers and, and, poor people, and they would just, just be, just along the highway. And the interesting thing was there were cases where there were a number of Whites who would come out also to see, ah, Martin Luther King make that pilgrimage down the highway. When we get to Greenwood, Greenwood is the area that was the congressional district headquarters, when we were in Mississippi in 1964 with the Mississippi Summer Project and Stokely was the, ah, Project Director, so he was very familiar to most of the people in Greenwood. Matter of fact when, ah, they found out that he was going to be speaking that night, I think more people came out as a result of their being able to identify very directly with Stokely and he, his role as a freedom fighter in that community, ah, dodging the bullets and, and the, the vigilantes and, and trying to put forward a movement. Ah, what happened was, was that when we went into, ah, to Greenwood to set up the tent so that we could have the program that night, ah, we were setting it up on a Black high school athletic field and the police came in and arrested Stokely and that information went through the community quite rapidly. And what it raises is, is that, even if the community chose to allow something as important to it as this march to come into its community, it could be cut out of the des--out of the decision making process. So it raises the question of power. And I think that that's where we began to talk more and more. We had been talking about the acquisition of power but now we had gotten to a clear example that we could use and during the period of, of the warm up, ah, you had Willie Ricks up and he would kind of introduce each of the speakers and he would say, "What do we want?" "Black Power!" "What do we want?" "Black Power!" And then when, ah, then later on during the program we were able to get Stokely freed from jail or released from jail and he came and he picked up on the theme. But what happens is, is that he was able to articulate using the model in Lowndes County, ah, using our history in the Civil Rights Movement to begin to focus in on Black Power and what it meant. And so I think that, you know, when he got up on the podium you had a lot of people who were very excited, they were very happy that he had gotten out of jail. They were happy that he was still struggling. They could relate to those kinds of things. And when he said, following, following Willie Ricks, "What do we want? Black Power!" He, he even answered the question and with a fist and it, it had meaning. And I think that's what was captured on the film footage and projected around the world as, as being a very negative kind of thing. But for many Black people it's the first time that, that we had said something, ah, at that particular point that was relevant. Black Power! Black Power! We'll remember Freedom Now. That was another term. Black Power took on another character because of, ah, not only Freedom Now, but Freedom. Black Power took on another character because it had Black attached to it but we didn't back down from it. We just thought that we needed to push it forward and make it a term that Black people control as opposed to the media or any other community.