A Documentary for Our Times: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

September 21, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 8 6 min read

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The morning after I saw the timely new documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, I picked up the New York Times and read an article about the Attica prison uprising, which came to its bloody end exactly 40 years ago and is prominently featured in the documentary. The article quotes newly discovered audio tapes of phone calls New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller placed to President Richard Nixon after he had ordered 1,000 police, including sharpshooters, to storm the prison, where rioting inmates had taken 33 guards hostage.

“They did a fabulous job,” Rockefeller crowed to Nixon hours after the four-day uprising was snuffed by a rain of bullets that left 39 people dead. “It really was a beautiful operation.”

At the time, the truth was not yet out – that 10 white guards were among the dead, and that the dead inmates and hostages had all been shot by police sharpshooters, not, as was originally believed, by the rioting inmates. Another truth was that negotiators had been close to a settlement with the leaders of the uprising, who were willing to free all hostages unharmed in return for amnesty from prosecution. But Rockefeller refused to go to Attica to talk directly with the inmates, fearing he would appear to be capitulating, and he adamantly refused their demand of amnesty. Instead he ordered a bloodbath.

The decision won Nixon’s hearty approval. “The courage you showed and the judgment in not granting amnesty, it was right, and I don’t care what the hell the papers or anybody else says,” Nixon told Rockefeller during their first phone call on Sept. 13, 1971. “If you would have granted amnesty in this case, it would have meant that you would have had prisons in an uproar all over this country.”

In a follow-up call to Nixon the next day, after the truth had begun to come out, Rockefeller was a bit more subdued but far from repentant. “Well, you know, this is one of those things,” he said. “You can’t have sharpshooters picking off the prisoners when the hostages are there with them, at a distance with tear gas, without maybe a few accidents.”

“Well,” Nixon replied, “you saved a lot of guards and that was worth it. You stand firm there and don’t give an inch. Because in the country, you see, the example you set may stiffen the backs of a few other governors that may have a problem.”

And then the other shoe dropped. “Tell me,” Nixon said, “are these [prisoners] primarily blacks that you’re dealing with?”

“Oh yes,” Rockefeller replied, “the whole thing was led by blacks.”

Later that day, Nixon, the master of spin, asked his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, if reports from the prison included the fact that the uprising was “basically a black thing.” Then Nixon fretted that Rockefeller’s “beautiful operation” might backfire: “That’s going to turn people off awful damn fast, that the guards were white.”

A state commission later reported that the riot was driven by black inmates unwilling to submit to the “petty humiliations and racism that characterize prison life.”

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The footage that makes up The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, including footage of the Attica uprising, was shot by Swedish television crews and shown on various Swedish TV programs in the ’60s and ’70s, then consigned to a basement archive for some 40 years. It was recently discovered there by a documentary filmmaker named Göran Hugo Olsson, who stitched the footage together and added contemporary interviews with some of the people onscreen and others whose lives they influenced, including Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, the poet Sonia Sanchez, and the musicians Erykah Badu and Questlove. The result is an impressionistic portrait of how racism gave birth to the pacifist civil rights movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., how that then morphed into the more militant Black Power movement, and how the U.S. government managed to tear it apart through acts like the Attica raid, spying on militants, aggressive prosecutions, and even, according to some activists, the introduction of heroin into Northern ghettos. It’s a sobering, inspiring, and ultimately sad picture, and it shows, in black-and-white and in grainy color, how far this country has come and how far it still has to go. Barack Obama may be a huge improvement over Richard Nixon, but Rick Perry is waiting in the wings. Meanwhile, according to a new U.S. Census report, poor and middle-class blacks continue to sink even farther and faster than their white counterparts.

There are many unforgettable sequences in this documentary, which won acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is now playing in New York. (There is an accompanying exhibition of still photos, artifacts, and a video at Third Streaming gallery in SoHo, and next spring Haymarket Books will publish transcripts of the interviews Olsson conducted for the film.) In one sequence, a Swedish TV crew is trying to interview Stokely Carmichael’s mother Mabel in her living room in 1967 while her famous son sits quietly on the floor nearby. She’s reticent, obviously uncomfortable about being interviewed. Frustrated by what he’s hearing, Stokely, who by then had graduated from the pacifist Freedom Rides and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to a far more militant stance, grabs the microphone from the reporter and sits on the sofa beside his mother. Speaking softly, Stokely gets her to open up and explain that the family was poor because her husband, a carpenter, was frequently laid off jobs. Why, Stokely persists, why was he laid off so often? Finally he coaxes it out of her. “It was because he was colored,” she says, adding, almost apologetically, “In those days we didn’t say Negro.” This last remark lends the interview its proper sepia tone, establishing it as a relic from a long-gone era. And it emphasizes just how far the young man with the microphone had to travel before he could dare to coin the electrifying slogan “Black Power.”

Another memorable sequence is a 1972 interview with Angela Davis, the former student of Herbert Marcuse who, at the urging of California Gov. Ronald Reagan, had been fired from her job teaching philosophy at UCLA because of her affiliation with the Communist party. The interview took place in the jail cell where Davis was awaiting trial on trumped-up charges that she was the owner of a gun that was used in a courthouse shootout. (President Nixon applauded the FBI for capturing this “dangerous terrorist” after she fled California. She was later acquitted.) When the jailhouse interviewer asks Davis how she responds to charges that the Black Power movement is violent, she bristles. In a stinging, sometimes shrill voice, she delivers a thumbnail sketch of what it was like to grow up black in Bull Connor’s Birmingham, Ala., what it was like to have friends die in church bombings, what it was like to live in constant fear of vigilante violence. “And you ask me about violence?!” she cries indignantly at the Swedish reporter.

coverThese two segments put a personal and very human face on the roots of a movement that has, over time, come to be remembered largely for its rhetoric, its slogans, and its icons, including the raised clenched fist, the Afro, the black panther, the gun-toting men in berets, shades, and leather jackets. This humanizing is a great service. In addition to Carmichael and Davis, we see Harry Belafonte chatting with Dr. King in Stockholm, we see the articulate Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party, being interviewed in Stockholm, and we see a frayed and chain-smoking Kathleen Cleaver in Algeria in 1969. The Black Panther Party’s communications secretary looks haunted, hunted. Without saying so outright, the movie implies that such a look comes with the territory when you’re married to a man who was on the run from an attempted murder charge, a man capable of writing a book as incendiary as Soul On Ice.

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There is, mercifully, a bit of dark humor here too. The movie reminded me of something I had forgotten – that when Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme likened the U.S.’s 1972 bombing of Hanoi to Nazi war crimes, the U.S. froze diplomatic relations with Sweden. Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” was, obviously, capacious enough to accommodate entire nations. Sweden comes in for more heat in the documentary when the editor of TV Guide is shown slamming Swedish journalists for their “hostile” coverage of American news. The documentary then points out, dryly, that TV Guide was published by Nixon’s wealthy crony Walter Annenberg, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

The charge against the Swedish journalists is not only fatuous and self-serving, it’s simply wrong. As The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 demonstrates, these journalists approached their interview subjects with great openness and compassion, which is more than can be said of many American journalists in that era. The result is three-dimensional portraits of people who were responding to 400 years of repression in the only ways they knew how – sometimes through prayer, sometimes through passive resistance, sometimes through fiery slogans, sometimes through political organizing, and sometimes through violence. As the divisions of class and race continue to harden and widen in this country, I say we could use more leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis, with their beautiful, hard-earned fury. The time for the Nelson Rockefellers, Ronald Reagans, and Richard Nixons and their “beautiful” operations is gone. Now, with the poor of all races getting poorer and with the middle class sinking fast, it’s time to dust off an old question and an old slogan. The question: Where is the outrage? The slogan: All Power to the People.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

8 comments:

  1. I think the question “Where is the outrage?” is an appropriate one. In the 1960s, young people were taking risks, rebelling against an unjust society. Young people today are too busy updating their Facebook statuses to bother.

  2. Bill, this was great, and especially prescient given the current Troy Davis controversy.

    @EM I think you may be onto something about Facebook, but it’s different from what you’re implying. In the 60’s and 70’s, young people could participate in any number of radical or revolutionary demonstrations without being as visible as they would be today. (Caveat: I wasn’t alive in this era, and this is just my supposition.)

    If you watch video of this weekend’s #OccupyWallStreet protests (http://goo.gl/jDvR5), however, you can see that that’s no longer the case. There are more cameras present (even those held by police officers) than you can count. While the most revolutionary members of the 60’s and 70’s counterculture certainly got their faces in the limelight, today almost everybody who shows up at a demonstration runs that same risk.

    We live in an information age, and a byproduct of that age is the fact that your controversial or subversive tendencies may come back months or years later to ruin your career. (If you doubt this, talk to anyone who’s ever been black-listed at an airport.) With the unemployment rate being what it is already, I’d argue that many young people are scared of squandering future opportunities. It’s not a question of apathy (I hope) so much as it’s a question of potential repercussions.

    Again, this is all just conjecture. I just bristle at sweeping generalizations about my generation.

  3. Despite the diversity these days with race, politics, and pop culture, injustice continues to thrive throughout the nation. Makes one wonder, has anything really changed?

  4. I hope the documentary addresses the powerful meta-layer of, for example, the FBI’s Cointelpro, or the false flag of the SLA (which became the excuse for the first, and now standard, use of SWAT teams, aka paramilitary force, in domestic “policing” operations) and the vast amount of psycho-social manipulations that had as much, or more, influence on America’s current reality as the Civil Rights movement. The most sinister fallacy of the post-Bernays epoch is the naive notion of “organic”, or even random, developments in History. Which is a little like thinking of any major ad campaign, with hundreds of millions of dollars behind it and a team of hundreds or thousands, as a last-minute, random and casual affair.

    How many “revolutionary” groups were (unwittingly) on the CIA’s payroll? The most dangerous black men in America were not the ones with guns, dreaming of the (absurdly impossible) Separate Black State; the most dangerous black men in America were the ones who advocated peace and class-wide unity… and those were the ones who had to be silenced: MLK, who had enormous moral authority and had begun speaking out explicitly against the “Vietnam” war, and late-stage MX, who was becoming far too inclusive, non-violent and too much of a statesman. Even Fred Hampton, as appealing to young whites as he was to blacks and other minorities, had to die for the social “danger” he presented as a unifier and was executed, while sleeping in his own bed, by (para-military) cops.

    Sorry to say that Angela Davis (for example) was exactly what They wanted in a high-profile black political figure. Being a communist, the mainstream would always reject whatever message Ms. Davis had to deliver; her alienating potential was great and highly useful. She was allowed to live and to “speak out”.

    Keep an eye on the “truth tellers” and “revolutionaries” who are not only allowed to live but given national platforms. What are they really selling? Where do they come from? How do they get, and stay, famous?

    The point has always been to keep the serfs fragmented and at odds with one another. America is a deeply-divided society; as divided as it was just after (or before) the Civil War; this is no accident. Just as it’s no accident that certain films or records or products become cultural icons/events, social attitudes and conditions are the result of orchestrated manipulations. The manipulations are exerted via the hydra-headed media. Who owns the hydra-headed media? Certainly not progressive serfs of color.

    Here’s a classic example of the FBI’s effort to alienate the mainstream from blacks in 1960s America (in the 21st century they use “Precious”, The Wire and Tyler Perry films, et al):

    http://whatreallyhappened.com/RANCHO/POLITICS/COINTELPRO/coloring.html

    The story of Donald DeFreeze (famous from the SLA/ Patty Hearst event), and his secret associations with Law Enforcement *before* the kidnapping of Ms. Hearst, deserves its own movie.

  5. To Nick Moran: It’s sad to see that Europeans are outraged over the execution of Troy Davis, while Americans barely seemed to notice, or care. Your point about the ubiquity of cameras today, especially at protests like Occupy Wall Street, is well taken. But young people who are “scared of squandering future opportunities” need to realize that people who protest social inequities have always placed themselves at risk. I have a German friend who was under constant police surveillance during the 1970s because she belonged to a communist student group — and the police were itching to crush the Red Army Faction, also known as Baader-Meinhof. And as “The Black Power Mixtape” points out, the U.S. government, through such domestic spying operations as COINTELPRO, has never been shy about harassing American citizens it regards as dangerous, or merely inconvenient. That shouldn’t snuff the outrage; it should fuel it, regardless of the unemployment rate.

    To Steven Augustine: Yes, as I mention above, this documentary does deal with COINTELPRO and other efforts by the U.S. government to silence the Black Power movement. I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that “the point has always been to keep the serfs fragmented and at odds with one another.”

    As for the question I pose at the end of my essay — “Where is the outrage?” — maybe we’re seeing it right now with the occupation of Wall Street. May the outrage continue to blossom and spread.
    Bill Morris

  6. Bill, I completely agree with what you say. I was merely offering some reason for the youth’s perceived inaction beyond being “busy updating their Facebook statuses.”

    As an aside about the Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s worth noting that there are reports of internet and cell-phone blocking, and if that’s true it’d make it the second time (SF’s BART protests being the first) in as many months.

    (http://goo.gl/hp5Ak)

  7. To the issue of modern youth’s perceived inaction (as opposed to the energetic dissidence of the 1960s), I’d like to drop here an excerpt from comment I made earlier this year:

    “The problem with tallying the achievements of the “old counter culture” against those of the “new counter culture” is somewhat like old baseball stats vs modern ones (but in reverse)… in an alternate universe in which winning teams actually get to alter the rules of the game.

    In an America that has moved so far to the Right that Al Gore (remember his book-burning wife?) is considered a *Liberal Icon* and the economy has everyone obsessed with not becoming homeless, from what quarter might Replacement Radicals come? Radical Consciousness in the West (ie, not contemplating the using of torches and pitchforks to kill the landowners but conceptualizing within the paradigm of “changing the system from within”… a very middle class approach) requires the luxuries of time to think and freedom from existential pressure (which breeds the requisite amount of foolhardy confidence… and I don’t use that phrase disparagingly).

    And there’s the New Materialism to consider: it was pretty easy to reject the mainstream, as a high school senior, back in 1966, when the most seductive things Society had to offer was sex-on-demand (ie, marriage) and color TV: rebels ‘n radicals could find better sex *outside* of marriage and better TV in the form of illicit drugs. Now, however, Mainstream Society itself is the purveyor of full-spectrum toys and pleasures and “dropping out” means ascetic self-sacrifice (and zero popularity among the hottest “chicks” and “dudes”).

    It’s as though God stole all the Devil’s best tricks after *finally* realizing that the chocolate-covered carrot works much better (except in extreme circumstances) than the stick.

    When even self-proclaimed Lefties won’t dare to criticize “our troops” (they are, after all, not drafted but voluntarily sign up to shoot at third world villagers who haplessly run afoul of US Foreign policy) and the death of a son or daughter in active duty can mean a sort of jackpot payout to grieving families, where’s the necessary rhetorical heat and outrage-momentum supposed to come from?”

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