Anger at racial oppression had bubbled beneath the surface calm of the fifties and had burst forth as the civil rights movement, shattering the illusion that America was all right. I thought that the civil rights movement embodied everything that was right about America—its idealism, its urgent yearning for democracy, its belief in simple fairness and the courage and power of ordinary people to shape their lives. It brought home what was profoundly and perhaps fatally wrong about America—lynchings, murders, all manner of inhumanity, American apartheid, the ugly stain on our soul, slavery and its legacy the open wound, festering, infecting the whole body politic.
American innocence blew up. Moral concerns became political issues; the search for personal meaning joined a pursuit of public responsibility.
The Cleveland project drew its strength and its focus from the civil rights movement, and it was drawn into its complexities again and again.
When Stokely Carmichael raised the banner of Black Power on a march in Mississippi that summer it roared into our neighborhood full-up. Stokely spoke to hundreds of people at a church down the street a few weeks later—we can't wait for white people to decide whether we're worthy of our freedom, he said. We must take our freedom. We can't allow others to do for us. We must do for ourselves. We can't accept white standards of beauty or intelligence. We must rid ourselves of self-hatred. This much is crystal clear, he said. We're one hundred percent human, and like other humans we need the power to run our own lives. We're Black, and we want power. Black . . .power. Black Power. The church vibrated with the excited chant.
I knew the implications of Stokely's words included the requirement that I get out of the way and that I organize "my own people." It felt both necessary and false, and I was hurt to think I might never have friends like Alex or Jackie again. I returned to Ann Arbor in the fall. Jackie was off to Tuskeegee, but by now she had changed her name—she was Afeni Shabazz.
The Community Union had been founded shortly after Reverend Bruce Klinger was run over by an earth-mover and killed during a sit-in at a construction site for what would become another segregated Cleveland public school at one end of Lakeview Avenue. It was gone by the time Ahmed Evans and a group of young Black nationalists engaged in a deadly shoot-out with the Cleveland police in an apartment at the other end of Lakeview. In between there was some struggle and much hope; there was even occasional heroism. It was the most loving attempt I would ever see to change so much of what was glaringly, screamingly wrong. And now the riot.
Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down.
But I so loved the unity of those times. I loved Lakeview Avenue, my street—and it was my street—and I loved the Community Union. I mostly loved everything I was seeing, and especially all that I was learning. I thought Stokely made perfect sense. But by that time I also thought I was Black.