Most of the information for this post is coming from Tavis Smiley’s book Death of a King. Reading the book, I saw numerous Spiral Dynamics applications.

The book started in 1967. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act had come into existence. He was officially the most prominent black leader in the USA. He had an audience with POTUS Johnson. He was in charge of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was currently touring the country speaking on behalf of Civil Rights.

At this point, Black America, which had been primarily Blue meme before the Civil Rights movement,  began to split into two factions. One mainly in rural areas and the urban ghettos saw an insignificant change in their day to day lives. Men like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Malcolm X began to grab the attention of these people. They wanted revolutionary change by any means necessary. I am classifying them as the new Red Meme. Then you had a middle class, highly educated, and politically knowledgeable black people that see a window of opportunity.  The middle-class black people are the new Orange Meme class.

The book starts with a speech given at 1967 in which Dr. King comes out firmly against the Vietnam War. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War put him at odds with his most powerful ally the POTUS. He also continues to advocate for nonviolence this puts him at odds with the younger and more radical elements of the civil rights movement. Dr. King had been a public figure for more than 15 years at this point. A new generation of leaders was beginning to crop up. Also, the people that he mentored through the movement wanted to get their power, position, and recognition.

I model Dr. King as moving from Orange to Green when he takes a stance against Vietnam. If he were in Orange meme, he would be “goal-centric”. The best thing for his movement would have been to be neutral or in support for the war. If King was neutral or in support of the war, King could keep Johnson on his side, and he could get more legislation through Congress. By coming out against the war, he will have increased surveillance from the government. Also, his moderate white allies will begin to distance themselves from him. He has nothing to gain by being against the war.

On the other hand in the Green Meme coming out against the war makes perfect sense. In the Green Meme black empowerment expands to include all oppressed people. In 1967, Dr. King’s language moved away from Negro problems to the problems of the poor worldwide. He understands that the same mindset terrorizes the people of Vietnam and Mississippi. He sees these issues as interdependent.

The Red Meme: H. Rap Brown and SNCC

“Black folk built America, and if America don’t come around, we’re going to burn America down”.-   H Rap Brown

The quote above sums up the philosophy of SNCC’s new chairman H. Rap Brown. Named “Rap” because of his charisma and ability to rhyme on command, he has been elected to replace Stokely Carmichael. SNCC at this point was on the verge of merging with the Black Panther Party. Brown was elected Minister of Defense of the joint organization in 1968.

I will use the rally in Cambridge, Maryland to illustrate what can happen to the black empowerment movement in the unhealthy red meme. Rap Brown comes on a wows the crowd. The opening quote is from the speech. The other famous quote was about the recent race riots in Detroit and Newark. “This ain’t no riot, brother. This is a rebellion, and we got 400 years of reason to tear this town apart.” The crowd goes crazy with cheers. He leads the crowd down Race St chanting black power slogans. The police open fire on the crowd and Brown is shot in the head but lives. The crowd disperses. Four hours later the Pine St Elementary School is burned down. The charge of inciting a riot is given to Brown receives the charge of inciting a riot.

Death of a King details King’s speech at the National Conference for New Politics, organized by his good friend and colleague Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Conference was a disaster for King. As soon as he leaves his car and walks to the podium, he hears chants and sees signs of “Down with Nonviolence” and “Kill whitey.” During King’s speech, numerous audience members heckle him. One onlooker described Dr. King as “afraid, worried, and tired”.

At the same time, this happened a group of 300 delegates demands that H. Rap Brown be allowed to enter and speak at the Conference. Originally, the purpose was to solidify white and black leftist around a possible presidential bid by Dr. Spock. Allowing Brown to speak would alienate all the white members. Spock being white himself had no reason to allow Brown to speak. The delegates occupy Hyde Park Methodist Church and threaten to burn it down. Cooler heads prevail, and the delegates leave peacefully without Brown speaking.

H.Rap Brown goes on to fight for Civil Rights, but legal trouble plagued Brown. A list of crimes ranging from gun possession to assault haunts Brown for the next 30 years. The charges culminate to his 2000 conviction in the death of a Fulton County, police officer. He is currently serving a life sentence.

The followers of Brown are Red Meme. SNCC had become a radical leftist organization at this point. They were openly talking about self-defense and organized rebellion against the power structure. The group will grow more militant over the years and join the Black Panther Party. The increased militancy led to increased scrutiny from the government.

Graves talked at length about how Green is taken advantage of by Red. However, he did not talk much about Red’s view and treatment of Green. Red view’s Green as weak and without a center. To some extent, this is the correct assessment. If Red feels stronger, Red will overpower Green.  The booing of King off the stage was an example of Red dominance over Green.

Graves got most of his information on the interaction between Red and Green from failed social programs in Chicago in the 1970’s, when Graves was conducting the majority of his research. One of these initiatives was called the Grassroot Independent Voter of Illinois.  A street gang started the organization under false pretenses and used the grant money for criminal operations. The Grassroot Independent Voter of Illinois was a unique phenomenon. The Green Meme component was composed of sympathetic white people that had political power. Red could not dominate these Green Meme individuals because they could bring down the long arm of the law. The Red Meme individuals, in this case, just outsmarted the Green Meme System to get the grant. Red had to show a nominal level of respect for the power of the Green Meme in that situation.

However, if the Red Meme and Green Meme individuals have an equal amount of power the Red Meme will simply dominate and run rough-shot over Green Meme.  Dr. King got booed off the stage as a result of Red Meme dominance. To this day, people that exalt Brown and other leaders in the Red Meme shun Dr. King as too accommodating.

Dr. King had no reason to believe he would be well received at that Conference. King should have known most of the black people at this conference would be from the radical left. As a Green Meme individual, he feels the need to make an effort to reach as many people as possible. Unfortunately, his efforts were unappreciated.

The Blue Meme: Thurgood Marshall and NAACP

Thurgood Marshall was a staunch critic of Dr. Martin Luther King. Marshall felt King never had a fully comprehensive plan. Also, he did not agree with King, a man with a Ph.D., going to jail frequently. Marshall said, “ The SCLC creates a case that the NAACP has to spend money to fight.” When a demonstration results in hundreds of people getting arrested it generates copious amount of legal work. The NAACP picked up many of these cases pro-bono.

It is important to look at Thurgood Marshall’s strategy to desegregate public schools. Everyone remembers the landmark decision that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board in 1954. However, many forget that was the final achievement of numerous cases starting with Murray v. U of Maryland in 1935.  The strategy was to use the 14th amendment’s equality clause to win cases on the state and appellate level to force schools to desegregate.  A low-level court could not overturn a Supreme Court decision directly. So cases were chosen that would not directly challenge Plessy vs. Ferguson.  Once proof existed on a massive scale that Negro and White facilities were not equal, and documentation existed in the courts, there will be enough precedence to argue against Plessy v. Ferguson.

The use of the current legal system against itself is a blue meme empowerment strategy. Marshall picked cases that had an over-qualified plaintiff that was an exemplary citizen that wanted to attend a University from the years of 1935 to 1954. The plaintiff exemplary status forces the judge and jury to concede that the only issue with admittance was race. Once the plaintiff proves they are capability and that the Negro facilities are not equal, they have to award for the defendant.

Dr. King’s civil disobedience was an orange meme strategy, break the law to garner public sympathy and force the legislature to act. When the SCLC cases came to the NAACP, by their very nature, they were unwinnable. The defendant was disobedient to the law. The NAACP could only make a plea, and get reduced sentences. The SCLC cases were a drain on NAACP finances, and there was no clear path to victory, at least at the beginning. The passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills proved the strategy.

Many would argue Thurgood Marshall was Orange Meme due to his constitutional philosophy.  His most famous quote is: “The government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and major social transformations to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the freedoms and individual rights, we hold as fundamental today”. The quote shows, to some, that he was willing to bend and break rules to get the best results for his people. The philosophy of bending rules would conclude that Thurgood Marshall was Orange Meme. However, these comments came after he was appointed Supreme Court Justice. As a Supreme Court Justice, he is allowed to interpret the constitution in whatever why he sees best. He is still ultimately a Blue Meme operator.

The Orange Meme: Jesse Jackson and Operation Breadbasket

Operation Breadbasket was a department of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1962. The goal was to systematically determine which local businesses were not hiring black people and organize boycotts to force the business to change its practices. The initiative began in Atlanta. The system was successful, and the SCLC decided to expand the project to Chicago.  A brash seminary student named Jesse Jackson led the Chicago operations.

Jesse Jackson was referred to as a “natural born leader” by Andrew Young. The SCLC had a difficult time expanding to the North. Black Americans in the North gravitated to a more radical speaking style. Dr. King never drew large crowds in the North because people felt he was too accommodating. Jackson was twelve years younger than King and able to relate to the mentality of northern black people. He was able to speak frankly on the issues without being violent. He was the perfect northern spokesman for the SCLC.

The Chicago Operation Breadbasket was the most successful when compared to the OB’s of other cities. Jackson began by targeting five businesses in the dairy industry. Three immediately agreed to hire more black people and the other two capitulated after the boycott. Then OB targeted Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and various grocery stores. Operation Breadbaskets work resulted in 2,000 new jobs and 15 million in income in a little over one year.

SCLC decided to headquarter Operation Breadbasket in Chicago in 1967. Jackson became the leader of the operation and pushed the SCLC to concentrate on this department. Jackson was incredibly ambitious, and this caused the issue with many other SCLC members, including Dr. King. Before Dr. King left for his fatal visit to Memphis, he scolded Jackson for only being concerned with his department and not the good of the organization as a whole. Dr. King extends an invitation for Jackson to come to Memphis as a way to patch the relationship and show good will.

The conflict between Dr. King and Jackson began over the future direction of the SCLC. Dr. King began to move toward building a coalition of disenfranchised and oppressed people all over the world. Jackson and most of the SCLC members wanted to focus on improving black people’s lives here in the United States.

Dr. King’s criticism of the Vietnam War is one of the best illustrations of the conflict over the future of the civil rights movement. By criticizing the war, King would make an enemy out of President Johnson. Johnson had shown sympathy for the movement and signed two civil rights bills. If Johnson and the Democratic party turn their collective backs on the movement, then black people could collectively get left out in the cold. In addition to criticism being a bad political move, it could also cause retaliation from the government in the form of police scrutiny. The last ten years has brought more recognizable progress for the struggle of black people than any other time in history. No reason to rock the boat, especially before an election year. The last and greatest concern was how mainstream America viewed the civil rights movement. If mainstream America sees the movement as un-American, it would only cause more problems when attempting to press for initiatives.

This type of issue is common between Orange and Green Meme individuals. Green Meme wants to live up to a particular ideal no matter what the consequences. Orange wants to be pragmatic and work to realize a specific goal. In a Civil Rights organization, you see the scenario above. It is important to remember that both men have the best interest of black people at heart. Both approaches have positive and negative aspects.


The goal of the article is to show how different value memes create conflict with each other. Hopefully, the reader can better understand which meme best describes his value system. You can then understand the value system of those who disagree with your ideas and methods. No longer will the reader simply write off people as Uncle Toms or classify them as angry and unrealistic. Understand you both are fighting the same war using different methods.


The page above is a personal blog that is not an official Spiral Dynamics Blog. The work of Clare Graves and Don Beck is the basis for this article. For more information on Spiral Dynamics, please go to the website below.