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National Commentary

It’s Still About Economic Development, Not Burning America Down

From the days of Slavery, Black Power and Passive Resistance
It’s Still About Economic Development, Not Burning America Down

By Bill Thomas

Daniel Watts, editor of the provocative Black power monthly, “The Liberator” in a 1968 interview with Bokara Lengendre and published in the Daily Press, believed America should be burned down to the ground. Ironically, Mr. Watts suggested a burning strategy but with more finesse than H. Rapp “Burn Baby Burn” Brown, Stokely Carmichael and other torch bearers or Black power advocates of the 1960’s could bring to the task.

“America has to burn,” Watts said, “But we have a more sophisticated plan, and somewhere along the line revolutionary leaders have to negotiate. Stokely Carmichael is a nice guy, but he doesn’t think. None of them think.”

Why not negotiate before you burn down the country?

“Because nobody wants to give a power,” Watts explain. The whites aren’t going to come to the negotiating table to give up their power, or even share it. What we need is white power to acknowledge its debt to Black people. We must force them to a confrontation with Black power by violence. America must burn down first.”

Why burn down the country if you and other black people have to live here, too?

“We have nothing to lose,” said Watts. “The blacks in this country don’t own anything. A revolution comes when poor people say we can lose no more; there’s nowhere to go but up.”

As Bokara Legendre continued his interview, Watts tipped back in his swivel chair, stretched his long legs under the desk and explained some more: “Black people aren’t burning down America because they are starving, but because this is part of their struggle for identification, for manhood. They are expressing anger at their own powerlessness, not the desire for another toaster, car or refrigerator.”


Let’s suppose that, after all the fires and violence, you do achieve the confrontation with the whites that you are looking for, what will you demand?”

“Economic power”, he exclaimed, “The power to influence our environment and control our families.” Economic power has to come before political power. We must have an economic revolution in which Black people will participate in big business; a revolution which forces the whites to have Blacks on the boards of big corporations like General Motors.”

Who will lead the revolution?

“The revolution is still in its embryo,” he said, straightening his elegant yellow tie and shuffling through some papers on his cluttered desk. “There have been no real leaders since Malcom X. It is the white press that creates spokesmen and leaders by quoting the ranting of the most strident Black power advocates. The truth is the Black community hasn’t had the time to find its real leaders yet.”

Ironically, later that spring in one of his last speeches Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man does not have a job or an income, he has neither life, nor liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists…” No money! No life!

Shortly thereafter, Dr, King launched the most militant project of his life; The Poor People’s Campaign.” This campaign was waged to confront the economic problems that he had been advised to ignore in the early civil rights reform days.

Dr. King put together a magnificent multiracial army of the poor that would eventually go to Washington, D.C. and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, if required or until Congress  enacted  an “Economic Bill of Rights”.

Dr. King said that “I believe if you give a people a thorough understanding of what confronts them and the basic causes that produced it, they will create their own programs and provide for their own communities.” Dr. King had come to realize that the legislative battle of civil rights and the battle plan necessary to win the war must change to battle over “Silver Rights”.

Dr. King’s “Economic of Rights” called for a massive injection of $12.0 billion in funding to create jobs and economic sound neighborhoods in the rebuilding of America. This shift from social rights to economic leadership by Dr. King frightened the establishment and caused the Readers Guide to warn America of impending insurrections. Dr. King had come to the realization that success in America went hand in hand with financial empowerment, freedom, dignity and self-respect.

How familiar does this sound today, more than a quarter century after an assassin‘s bullet and Dr. King’s effort to empower all the poor people via massive mobilization rooted in economic empowerment?


Both saw the emergence of a strong Black community in America primarily through economic development in cooperation with other people of similar circumstances. Even today, in this nation of immense wealth, President Donald J. Trump, Congress (Republicans and Democrats) and most of the media’s acknowledged African American leadership continue to accept the perpetuation of poverty.

Sadly so do most major media. It is still not surprising that they tell us so little about the last years of Martin Luther King’s life; of how in the end his path crossed with other frustrated Black men like Daniel Watts or Malcolm X.

In retrospect, Mr. Watts and Dr. King demanded action and change. They both made tremendous sacrifices. One saw the use of violence as the means, while the other preached peace and love. Ironically, even Mr. Watts, who at one time advocated the strategic burning of America, came to understand the importance of racial cooperation in economics. In the end, one set aside his torch while the other laid down his life. Both saw freedom for Blacks via an  economic agenda.

Yes, the police can murder Mr. George Floyd, or even to this very day, shoot either me or my two beautiful and smart Black sons down on any street in America including any city in Hampton Roads and SOME not give a damn. But let’s not burn America down or recklessly tear down all the engraved imagines of our White enslavers’ statutes to their Confederate heroes. Instead, we need to concentrate on the real problems we all face and establish realistic ways to solve them.

The Black community must come to realize that none of us are free to live where we choose, protect our institutions, own our OWN businesses, hold our Black and/or White politicians accountable, provide jobs for our communities or educate our OWN children in the manner we need, simply because we cannot afford it.

Bill Thomas lives in Hampton, Virginia and is a member of the Hampton University Department of Governmental Relations.

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