In 1967, wrote the Black theologian James Cone in his final book before his death, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody (2018), “Detroit exploded and so did I.” On July 23 of that year, dozens of Black Detroiters gathered at an unlicensed after-hours club in order to celebrate the return of two local veterans from Vietnam. The celebration was interrupted by a police raid, during which the officers arrested everyone (over eighty people) at the party. As the attendees were transferred into paddy wagons, a crowd of hundreds formed, watching the arrests. The bystanders protested, and some began to throw bottles in the direction of the officers. As anger mounted, some members of the crowd started to smash shop windows. Within a day, hundreds of fires were blazing in the city.
The uprising gave voice to long-standing frustrations among Black residents of Detroit over decades of disproportionate police harassment and both official and unofficial policies of segregation, leading to vast disparities in housing, education, and economic well-being between Black and non-Black communities in the city. During the next five days, the uprising grew in intensity as local police and National Guard troops sent in by President Lyndon Johnson responded with lethal force, terrorizing the Black population of Detroit.
Forty-three people in total were killed, including, most infamously, a four-year-old girl, Tanya Blanding, killed by National Guard sniper fire, and three teenagers who had taken shelter in the Algiers Motel—Aubrey Pollard, Carl Cooper, and Fred Temple—who were beaten and killed by Detroit police officers. No one was held responsible for their deaths.
“I felt a black fire burning inside me,” Cone wrote, describing how the 1967 uprising affected him, “so hot I couldn’t control it any longer… I withdrew and kept to myself, lamenting over the forty-three dead after five days of black rebellion. But I had to find a way to let it out.” He knew that writing the truth would anger white fellow Christians; he didn’t care. “Why should I care about what they thought?… That was the Malcolm X part of black liberation theology breaking loose in me.”
Malcolm X, the most prominent Muslim leader in the Black freedom struggle, was, in the eyes of those who welcomed him and those who feared him, the embodiment of Black anger and defiance. While many who met him personally commented, as James Baldwin did, on Malcolm’s “extraordinary gentleness,” he existed in the public consciousness as the voice of Black grievance: “Stop sweet-talking [the white man]!” he exclaimed. “Tell him how you feel! Tell him what kind of hell you’ve been catching.”
It was Malcolm X’s refusal to “sweet-talk,” his full-throated defense of Black humanity, that drew Cone and other Black Americans, especially young people, to his message. In the years that followed Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, widespread coalitions of Americans dedicated to dismantling white supremacy gained unprecedented influence on the American political scene. Although he was not alive to see it, the passionate activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s understood Malcolm X as the voice of their movement.
Malcolm X’s language about race and the Black liberation struggle changed over time, but it was his impassioned description of white responsibility for racial violence, and his insistence on the necessity of Black communal self-determination, that most influenced young activists. Malcolm X transformed the incendiary language used by the Nation of Islam, the idiosyncratic Muslim-identified movement of which Malcolm was a member until 1964, into an incisive political and spiritual critique.
Relying upon the Nation of Islam’s controversial characterization of white Americans as “devils,” Malcolm X reworked this language to describe the ways in which anti-Black violence had deeply rooted itself into the white American psyche. Malcolm X’s interpretation of the “white devil,” as the Black Catholic ethicist Bryan Massingale has pointed out, did not primarily refer to inherent racial traits, but instead was a statement about history, and what history does to us. “We are speaking,” he declared in his autobiography, “of the collective white man’s historical record. We are speaking of the collective white man’s cruelties, and evils, and greeds, that have seen him act like a devil toward the non-white man… You cannot find one black man, I do not care who he is, who has not been personally damaged in some way by the devilish acts of the collective white man!”
In a 1962 speech, “The Black Man’s History,” Malcolm built upon the Nation of Islam’s origin narrative of the white devil to describe the emergence of white identity itself as a process of densensitization, generation after generation, to murder: “The Book [Psalm 51:5] says concerning the devil: ‘He was conceived in iniquity and born in sin.’ What does this mean?” The “seed of iniquity,” he said, was planted “right into the brain, right into the mind, right into the heart, right into the nature of these people.”
When James Cone, in his first book in 1969, decried the “beastly behavior of the ‘devil white man,’” this is what he meant. “Men were not created for separation,” he immediately clarified, “and color is not the essence of man’s humanity.” But to ask Black Americans to ignore race “is asking them to ignore both the history of white America and present realities.”
In the period during which Cone wrote his first book, white commentators on both the right and the left published increasingly alarmed opinion pieces over the use of language they said depicted all white Americans as responsible for racial injustice. Some of the strongest objections came from progressive critics.
On October 6, 1968, The New York Times ran an article by Nathan Perlmutter, who would later become the director of the Anti-Defamation League, lamenting a recent rise of “political thuggery” and “racial bullying” on the left. In the piece, he scathingly described his fellow “liberal intellectuals” as having collapsed into racially-based extremism. Perlmutter accused contemporary radicals of having created a bogeyman in the form of the “stereotype” of “white racism.” This stereotype, Perlmutter charged, was itself a form of “dangerous racism”: “No longer are the whites good guys and bad guys… no matter that this white man freedom-rode the buses in Mississippi and that it was the other fellow who burned the cross.”
Notably, in the same issue in which this article was published, the Times also ran an article about a rally held in New Jersey in support of George Wallace, the avowedly segregationist former Governor of Alabama. According to the headline, he was “cheered by thousands.” Noticeably omitted from the headline was the incident described later in the article, in which Wallace’s Confederate-flag toting supporters violently attacked a group of Black bystanders: “An excited white man shouted ‘kill ‘em—kill ‘em’ as a small group of Negroes was set upon by whites. It was not certain how the altercations had begun. But after the shoving and punching subsided, a Negro emerged with a bloody face and a white man complained that the staff of his Confederate flag had been broken.” The contrast between Perlmutter’s outrage over the left’s “extremism,” which he identified mostly in the form of activists’ “stereotyping” and student protests, and his comparative silence on ongoing violence against Black communities, is striking.
Similar responses could be found among progressive Catholic commentators. In late November 1971, Father Andrew Greeley devoted his weekly column, syndicated in dozens of newspapers nation-wide, to the topic of what he called a “resurgence of Nazi mentality in America.” Greeley was one of the most recognizable figures of the American Catholic left, a frequent contributor to progressive Catholic publications such as America and Commonweal, a successful novelist, a well-respected social scientist, and an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church’s positions on birth control, divorce, and women’s ordination.
In this column, however, the target of Greeley’s critique was the “self-proclaimed radicals” of the left. He characterized contemporary racial justice and “Women’s Lib” activists as latter-day “neo-Nazis” who alleged that “all whites are guilty of racism, all men are chauvinists, all old people have ‘sold out.’”
Greeley singled out for special attention James Cone’s writings. He described Cone’s theology as “filled with hatred for white people and the assumption of a moral superiority of black over white.” Greeley concluded by asserting that Cone and the unnamed “screaming women” of the feminist movement would have felt at home among the cheering crowds at the Nazis’ Nuremberg rallies.
As in the case of Perlmutter’s column, the focus of Greeley’s ire was revealing. While he expressed outrage over Cone’s and feminists’ expressions of anger, white supremacist terrorism was on the rise. Only months previously, in Pontiac, Michigan—just a few hours away from Greeley in Chicago—the Ku Klux Klan had blown up ten school buses in an attempt to put a halt to the city’s desegregation order, to give one notorious example.
What accounted for Greeley’s disproportionate alarm over Cone’s expression of anger about ongoing racial terror and injustice? This question is crucial in 2020 following the mass protests that filled the streets of American cities this spring and summer in response to the police and vigilante killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. The anger, grief, and frustration expressed by Cone and Malcolm X continue to be voiced by Black communities today. And, in response, echoes of Greeley’s outrage are not hard to find.
Examining the history of these rhetorical conflicts over race invites us to ask ourselves a question: what are we angry about, and why? The protestors on the streets, then and now, were angry about how Black people continue to be killed, incarcerated, and deprived of justice with seeming impunity in the United States. Greeley, on the other hand, like so many today, was angry about the protestors’ anger.
What are we angry about, and why? Malcolm X’s explanation of the “seed of iniquity” carried down from generation to generation by white Americans provides one answer: white Americans have been desensitized to the pain, fear, grief—the humanity—of Black people. As the Black feminist critic Brittney Cooper pointed out in Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (2018):
“Most white people… view [the] rage [expressed at Black Lives Matter protests] with a studied indifference and willful ignorance that is about not seeing or validating Black people’s fear and right to be afraid.”
In Malcolm’s framework, this can be explained by the spiritual distortion caused by centuries of intergenerational violence and complicity. To put it in terms of the biblical language Malcolm loved, the sinful world into which we were conceived and born has not taught white Americans to register the pain of Black people as similarly real, grievous, hurtful as their own pain. Generations of racial terror have mangled white Americans’ consciences and ability to trust their moral intuition. This legacy of violence has occluded the empathy that, as humans and as children of God, is our most basic calling, rooted in that gift of recognition that the first human beings, so the story in Genesis goes, gave to one another: “This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).
As November draws closer, we have a choice. We could repeat the same circular debates, go through the same cycles of defensiveness and apologetics found in the newspaper archives.
Or: we could grieve. In Catholic tradition, November is a month for remembering the dead. As it draws closer, we should accept that invitation, should feel the weight of this unimaginable loss, of all of the lives lost to centuries of racial terror, all the ways we and our ancestors have failed to hear the cry of our siblings’ blood, like Abel’s, screaming for justice from the earth. “Your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God… For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity” (Isaiah 59:2-3). God, please: expand our contracted hearts.
Marjorie Corbman is Assistant Professor in the Theology & Religious Studies department at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY. She defended her dissertation, on the influence of African-American Islam on early Black Theology’s portrayal of God’s anger, earlier this year at Fordham University.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!
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