Love and Power: Being and Living Liberation in the 21st Century

By Keryl McCord

This keynote address was given by Keryl McCord at ROOTS Week 2019. 


Good Morning – thanks to my ROOTS family for the opportunity to be with you this morning. I’m excited, and a little nervous because many of you could just as easily be up here. I am truly humbled and honored to stand before you and offer something of myself, and hopefully something of value, to use.

I’m going to talk about power and love, being and living in liberation now, today, not in some distant future, but right now.

Dr. King, on Power

I’d like to share a quote with you, one that has great meaning for me because it encapsulates some deep truths about power. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is LOVE implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

This quote from Dr. King is not one that many are familiar with, yet it resonated with me like a perfectly plucked string on a cello, searing into my heart, my mind, and my spirit.

Power is the fulcrum upon which every abusive dehumanizing system is balanced. Every single one. And this is as true in the US as it is in any country. But we are here, in the US, so for the purposes of this talk, we’ll focus our attention on the US.


Power is the fulcrum upon which racism, sexism, genocide, homophobia, classism, ableism, and patriarchy are balanced, holding up all of these intersecting ideologies. Picture a seesaw for a moment. Like the one you may have ridden as a child. Remember going up and down and up and down, your head flung back, maybe you’re looking at the sky, going up and down, not seeing the thing underneath, the fulcrum that made that motion, that balance possible.

A dictionary search of the word fulcrum tells us it derives from Latin and means bedpost, “The point of which a lever rests or is supported and on which it pivots.” It is a thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event or situation. It also means to “prop up.”

It can be said then that power plays a central or essential role in an activity, event or situation. Power props things up.

I hope to make it plain, to make power visible and understood. And to offer a vision of power in our lives, firmly rooted in love and justice, making it possible for us to “live in liberation.”

My Roots In Justice Run Deep 

Even as an old school 70s radical who was a member of the New York Chapter of NOAR, the National Organization for an American Revolution founded and led by Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs based in Detroit,  even then power felt ill-defined, nebulous. I thought that some amorphous people somewhere have this thing called power who, in the 60s and 70s were just called “The Man.” Oh, and they were white. 

Having experienced our nation’s many forms of state-sanctioned dehumanizing abuses of power such as segregation – that meant when, as a child of seven or eight taking the train from New York City to visit family in the south for the summer, when the train arrived in Washington, DC, my nation’s capital, I had to get off of the car I was in and was moved to the colored car. It meant suffering the indignity and utter stupidity of segregated water fountains and restrooms. We all drank water that came from the same source, and the waste removal system then took all the waste to the same treatment center. So separate bathrooms or water fountains were insane, absurd. At seven years old I knew it was wrong and it made me deeply angry.

The abuse of power also led to the humiliation and confusion of having to relieve myself by the side of the road when driving from New York City to the South because the bathrooms at gas stations along route 301 would take my father’s hard-earned money from his labor demolishing buildings but would not allow us to pee in their bathroom.

I was angry that my parents could not correct this injustice.

As an adult I experienced the paternalism of an era firmly entrenched in patriarchy that would not allow a woman to get birth control without a) being married, and b) her husband’s permission; there was also my inability to sign a lease on my own once divorced from my first husband, or when we were first married I was unable to get a credit card in my own name or to have a bank account in my own name, without my husband’s signature.

I witnessed homophobia where men were jailed for “deviant sexual activity” as clubs were raided by the police, both before and after the uprising at Stonewall.

All of this madness made me want to throw off the shackles of power, all of them. But what to replace it with? Well I wasn’t clear about that as it appeared that power seemingly, invariably, inevitably led to abuse and I was tired of the abuse.

Definition of Power

About seven years ago, sitting in this space where we now gather, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB) facilitated a day and a half all-conference Undoing Racism training for ROOTERS. PISAB facilitators shared with us a definition of power that sparked something in me then and is fundamental to the work I’m now doing with my firm, Equity Quotient.


It’s simple:

Bias/prejudice + Power = ISM

Racial bias/prejudice + Power = Racism

Gender bias/prejudice + Power = Sexism

Sexual identity bias/prejudice + Power = Homophobia

Immigrant bias/prejudice + Power = Nativism or Xenophobia


Within each of these examples, power is the fulcrum that can make individual, interpersonal, or group biases and prejudices lethal. Power provides benefits for some and deadly consequences for others. Power at this level is cold-blooded, it eschews feelings and emotions, silences the meek, ignores its impact upon individuals, and ruthlessly shuts down resistance.

But still, what does power mean? Again, from PISAB and maybe other entities as well, (I believe the NAACP also uses this equation in its power analysis) true power means legitimate systems sanctioned by the state.

It means the power to make law through legislation: city councils, county commissions, state legislators, and federal lawmakers.

It means authorizing law enforcement to enforce and where necessary to impose the laws created by legislative bodies: ICE, for instance, dragging people out of cars or leaving children standing on street corners having seen their parents snatched off the street and handcuffed and placed in a car. Or children in cages on our southern borders being traumatized by being separated from their family. Or a Justice Department that decides not to bring charges against police in the case of Eric Garner.

Power means the courts are empowered to interpret the law. It means the Supreme Court decided that the religious beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby meant employees’ birth control did not have to be covered by health insurance, or that corporations are actually people and subject to the same rights of speech as actual people as expressed through corporate donations to politicians.

And power means institutions such as media and culture that reinforce ideologies that perpetuate dominant prevailing narratives. Scarlett Johannson says she has the right to play any character of any race, or Paul Giamatti gets to play the movie version of a real-life southeast Asian who was head of the southern division of the US Attorney’s Office.

But power without love is reckless and abusive

When Genocide and Racism Became Legal

The laws that set these systems in motion, the creation of racial classifications and the genocide of Native Americans, happened a long, long, long time ago with a series of Papal Bulls or laws issued by the Catholic church in 1452, 1453, and 1493. They were and are the design and blueprint for this “New World,” and it was based in love all right, just not love of people.

According to the pope who retroactively issued the Papal Bull of 1493, he needed to find a way to prevent Spain and Portugal from going to war over God, Glory, and Gold in the New World.

Bottom line, in essence, the doctrines said to Columbus and fellow explorers, “If you come to lands and there are no Christians there, consider the land unoccupied and the people are not human. You can kill them or enslave them for they are not human. You can take what is in the land or on it for church and crown.” 

In 1493 the pope divided the world in half, drawing a longitudinal line from the top to the bottom of the world, everything to the west was given to Spain and all the lands to the east were Portugal’s. He divided the world in half, just imagine that! Well, he did imagine it and he had the power and authority to manifest it.

All the peoples on this land, all of India, all of Africa, China, Japan, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, everywhere Christianity had not gone, the people were considered non-human and weapons were brought to bear to enforce and impose these new laws, this new world order.

The Doctrines lay the foundation for the theft of 1.5 billion acres of land on Turtle Island, the genocide of 5 million or more First Peoples such that today they are less than 2% of the population and have been made invisible within our society. But as Kim Pevia and Quita Sullivan often remind us, they are still here, still present.

What was done here on this land to First Peoples deserves a reckoning an accounting, just as the enormous theft of Africans and their labor through slavery, too, bears witnessing and an accounting.

The Doctrines lay the foundation that led to the development of racial classifications that began in the 1700s, were codified in the 1800s with five racial classifications – The Malay for Indigenous people, Mongoloid for Asians, Australoid for Australians, Caucasians for people who became white, and Negro for Africans, the only such group classified by skin color, disconnected from their land of origin.

These powerful people – popes and kings and queens, governors and planters – took on the power of God, these people who became white gave themselves the power and authority to “create or name new people.” Imagine that!

But first things first: first it was the theft of land, then the theft of Africans and their labor to work the land. Then came racial classifications.

Bacon and the Class Divide

For decades people have asked why poor whites don’t ally with poor blacks, brown, and Native peoples? We can blame the governor of Virginia’s nephew for setting this wheel, the class divide, in motion. It was Bacon’s Rebellion 1676-1677 when the governor of Virginia regained power after having been thrown out of office for more than a year by his nephew (or son-in-law), Nathaniel Bacon. An armed group of poor indentured whites, and free and enslaved blacks banded together to force the governor from office. It is after that threatening event that we see the intersection of stolen land and genocide, stolen labor and enslavement, that a strategy emerged to prevent something similar from happening again.

Virginia’s governor wrote to the King of England and said, “We can never allow these poor peoples to come together again to take power. We must divide and conquer.” In order to conquer the land and its original inhabitants, they divided poor whites from poor blacks. How were they divided? Post Bacon, upon completing their indentureship whites were given some grain and seeds, and some tools to start a new life. Then some things were taken away…free black men could no longer testify against white men, and they were now disarmed. Unarmed in the 1670s. Is this the reason that even today the sight of armed black people results in a paroxysm of fear and hysteria, and often death?

Enslavement then became permanent, and white women who married enslaved Africans, they and their children would be enslaved in perpetuity.

Some things were given, and some things were taken away, and a new group of people emerged, as Dr. Jacqueline Bartolora says that the first mention of “white” in historical colonial records was roughly 1680. Nearly thirty or forty years before early racial classifications were created in the mid-1700s. This is the reason that James Baldwin said, “White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.” When the first enslaved landed at Jamestown as is noted in the Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, “There were no white people here. White is just another word for power, another world for Chase Manhattan Bank.” There is a through-line!

By the mid-1700s, racism as a tool to impose the division between poor whites and poor blacks was firmly in place, while the theft of land continued apace. By the mid-1800s all the systems of power needed to enforce the racial divide and the stepped-up genocide of First Peoples in 1825 under President Andrew Jackson, were firmly entrenched, There were lawmakers, courts to interpret the law, and law enforcement to enforce the laws and cultural mores. All the necessary institutions were operational.

What of the Revolutionary War? Only those who owned land were able to vote in the first election, representing 6% of the population, leaving poor whites to be a buffer between wealth and blacks and First Peoples.

What the Revolutionary War meant was that we switched masters from the British to the new Americans and being American became synonymous with white and wealth.

And what of the Doctrines? Andrew Jackson used them in 1825 forcing the Cherokee off their land and marched to Oklahoma. In 2005 the Doctrines were again used to take indigenous land in the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. Which begs the question, since the Doctrines are still on record, does this current much-beloved pope believe that non-Christians are not human? If not, then why have the Doctrines not been repudiated by the church?

But we are talking about power in today’s world, knowing the history that got us here helps. Now the forces of white supremacy that, post- Civil Rights movement, had become muted – it was impolite and impolitic to speak out loud their quiet thoughts and fears – now they have been unmuzzled, and white supremacy is boldly following the blueprint laid out by that long-dead British governor, to utilize racism and Xenophobia to divide and conquer.

Racism, homophobia, sexism, patriarchy, transphobia, fear of the dreaded other or hatred of the outsider that targets non-white immigrants and refugees, or those who cannot conform or fit in. All of these “issues and ideologies” serve to distract us from all the ills that are killing us and our planet, while a handful of people get rich beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. Remember, God, Glory, and Gold were the motivating factors then, and now. 

The strategy of divide and conquer was designed to distract people, now it distracts us from seeing the process of authoritarianism happening on this land right before our eyes. Racism, sexism, class divisions, gentrification, homophobia, etc., are all a shell game, grabbing our attention while power could care less about the consequences of hate and fear being unleashed upon us. Sowing division amongst us is the long game and it has been working since 1680, when the first record that refers to white people appeared. As long as powerful wealthy people can continue to suck up every last dime, every last penny available, every share of stock, they have no incentive nor desire to change the game. They have multimillion-dollar underground bunkers prepared for them and their families to escape to.

Mass murder by white supremacists? Ok. Police killing unarmed black and brown civilians? Ok. Students in their 20s graduating school carrying thousands and thousands of student loan debt? Ok. A broken health care system where people die while waiting for a referral? Ok. A political party doing everything in its considerable power to make voting as difficult as possible in a supposed democracy, making it difficult for brown and black communities? Ok. More than 2 million people in jails and prisons, where the US is 5% of the world’s population and has the largest prison population of any country on the planet? Ok.

In other words, power is saying, “Look over there, nothing’s happening here.” As they run to the bank.

Racism is and has been a tool for division. As my friend Kim Pevia might say, racism is a tool that continues to invisibilize First Peoples. Homophobia is a tool of division. Transphobia is a tool of division. Sexism is a tool of division. All of these things are tools wielded by powerful people to divide us and power is the fulcrum that balances and props up wealthy, powerful, men who became white, and their global financial and corporate interests.

But Dr. King’s quote also tells us that, power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands in the way of LOVE.


Take a minute to imagine ways of being grounded in processes of justice guided by power seeking to correct everything standing in the way of love. Imagine ways of being where we know love as a verb, not just a feeling.

Imagine power seeking to end racial classifications and consign them to the ash heap of history because not only are they enormous lies with no scientific, no biological basis but also because racial classifications stand in the way of love. Without racial classifications, racism ends.

Imagine power that repudiates homophobia and transphobia because it stands in the way of loving ourselves and each other. Imagine a place where power seeks to ensure that everyone has what they need to live because they are human. Imagine, just imagine. Imagine power seeking to keep our planet healthy and knowing our place in the ecosystem.

Forty years later I still hear the voices of Jimmy and Grace Boggs, “Dr. DuBois said that the color line was the challenge of the 20th century. But the challenge of the 21st century was the challenge to become more human, human beings.”

They were right. Power is neutral, it is neither good nor bad. Power is not the problem, people who love power in order to impose or enforce their will, their worldview, their prejudices, their biases, their religion, their authoritarian systems, and to use violence to achieve their goals, that is the problem.

But in these armed states of America, white supremacists are hunting and killing people, and whiteness is killing white men at alarming rates in places such as Tennessee, and Wisconsin as they die by suicide.  This is gaining attention by health researchers. Americans who became white have just as much at stake in this struggle as anyone.

People ask, does 45 have no bottom? How low will he go? My response is that our fate doesn’t rest in his hands but ours, the real question is what is your bottom line? How much more before we say enough? My bottom line was crossed on November 8, 2016.

I am going to close with a quote from Jimi Hendrix, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then the world will know peace.” The power of love. Love is the only thing that when divided multiplies. Hate when divided can only divide.

What are we waiting for? When will you know it is time? Who are we waiting for when the power to change ourselves and to become tools of oppression no more, is in our hands right now?

We can begin to be and live in liberation. Liberate ourselves from abusive ideologies and we will have liberation in our lifetime. First, we must be in liberation, then we do actions that liberate us, then we will have liberation.

What do you want to liberate yourself to? This is a question each one of us in this room right now, at this moment, has the power and personal agency and authority to answer. We don’t need anyone’s permission.

Thank you for listening.

Ms. Keryl McCord is President and CEO of EQ, The Equity Quotient, a national training, and organizational development firm dedicated to supporting nonprofits interested in becoming more just and equitable community partners, with equity, diversity, and inclusion as outcomes of their work. EQ’s expertise and its curriculum provide Dismantling Racism training for the field of arts and culture, grounded in an analysis of the history, policies, and practices of the field.

Keryl McCord is a veteran arts manager and administrator with forty years of experience in many facets of the arts.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.