Black Power signified both a departure from, and a continuation of, the ongoing civil rights movement. Prominent during the late 1960s and 1970s, Black Power promoted an activist-oriented strategy to challenge racial oppression and exploitation. Various individuals and groups identified as part of the Black Power movement include the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Africa, US, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
The term Black Power originated in June 1966. During that year James Meredith, the first African American permitted to attend the University of Mississippi, conducted a one-man march against fear across the state of Mississippi. Two days into the march he was shot by a sniper and unable to complete the march. In his stead, Stokely Carmichael (1941-98), then chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), encouraged supporters to continue the march. As state troopers attacked the marchers, SNCC organizer Willie Ricks (now known as Mukasa Dada) advocated that African Americans adopt a strategy of Black Power. In response, Carmichael rallied the marchers with chants of “Black Power.”
Within a year Black Power had emerged as an activist-based strategy to challenge white supremacy and to promote self-determination. A critical event in the maturation of Black Power as a strategy occurred in 1967 with the publication of Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Charles Hamilton’s book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. This book not only defined a phrase, it presented the movement with a political framework and encapsulated the idea that social justice was not forthcoming through traditional political processes but rather through more radical practices.
That said, Black Power did not encompass a single ideology, and its proponents did not advocate a single political strategy. Rather, the political orientations included the ideas of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Malcolm X (1925-65), Frantz Fanon (1925-61), Mao Zedong (1893-1976), and Karl Marx (1818-83). Drawing on Malcolm X, for example, many advocates of Black Power eschewed integration. Both politically and economically, integration was theorized as a means of retaining and reaffirming racial inequalities and injustices. Likewise, for Carmichael and Hamilton, integration was “a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy.”
Common to the many variants of Black Power was a commitment to racial equality and racial pride, as well as self-defense and self-determination. Black Power was thus about putting ideas into practice. This translated into various self-defense and community-empowering projects. The form in which Black Power was put into practice reflected the local conditions confronted by activists. The Black Panther Party, for example, initiated a series of locally based and locally derived programs. These neighborhood programs— later termed survival programs—were designed to satisfy the immediate needs and concerns of community residents. Specific programs included petitioning for community control of the police, teaching Black history classes, promoting tenant and welfare rights, establishing health clinics, and investigating reports of police brutality.
An ideology of self-determination did not translate into isolation. Instead, many Black Power proponents, including Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, called for inclusion while advocating autonomy and black liberation. The argument was based on the belief that black equality could not come about while other groups were simultaneously oppressed and exploited. As a result, Black Power advocates established crucial linkages with other organizations, including those supporting women, gays, and lesbians. Furthermore, Black Power proponents, as well as specific Black Power organizations, served as templates for other organizations demanding equality and liberation from oppression and exploitation. The Black Panther Party, as an example, catalyzed other organizations, not only in the United States (e.g., the Brown Berets, the Young Lords, and the American Indian Movement) but in other countries around the world. These later organizations included the Black Beret Cadre (Bermuda), the White Panther Party (United Kingdom), the Black Panther Party of Israel, the Black Panther Party of Australia, and the Dalit Panthers (India).
Black Power should not be seen as the militant counterpart of the broader civil rights movement. To be sure, Black Power, unlike the civil rights movement, focused more attention on racial pride, empowerment, self-determination, and self-defense. Certain proponents of Black Power, moreover, contradicted the goals set forth by mainstream civil rights leaders. Those supporting Black Power, for example, favored a variant of separatism as opposed to integration. There was also a tendency among Black Power proponents to view the United States not as a land of opportunity but rather as a land of racism, prejudice, exploitation, and oppression. Indeed, many participants of the Black Power movement viewed African Americans as living under a form of domestic colonialism.
Despite these differences, however, it is best to conceive Black Power as a locally derived alternative to the civil rights movement. Although its roots stretch to the south, the Black Power movement increasingly was defined by, and focused on, the northern and western portions of the United States. The Black Power movement, consequently, initiated a shift in focus from the rural agrarian South to the more urban industrialized North. This geographic transformation highlighted the spatial variations in racist practices. Whereas African Americans in the South largely confronted de jure racist practices and policies (e.g., Jim Crow laws), those in the North and West more often experienced de facto racism. Consequently, different strategies for racial equality and social justice were required.
Black Power also entailed an important cultural component. Whereas the promotion of racial pride was vocalized through popular slogans such as “Black Is Beautiful,” the movement also experienced a flourishing of the arts. Poetry and paintings, songs and novels: All promoted the ideas of black liberation and freedom. The influence of Black Power is especially seen in the changed music styles of the late 1960s. Building on the rhythm and blues of James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Ike Turner, Black Power contributed to the emergence of a distinctly “black” sound: soul music. Influential groups and musicians included the Last Poets, the Isley Brothers, Rusty Bryant, the Temptations, Edwin Starr, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the aforementioned James Brown. Indeed, Brown’s 1968 song “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” served as an official anthem of Black Power.
- Joseph, Peniel E. 2006. Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. New York: Henry Holt.
- Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. 2005. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Ture, Kwame and Charles V. Hamilton . 1992. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage.
- Tyner, James A. 2006. The Geography of Malcolm X: Black Radicalism and the Remaking of American Space. New York: Routledge.
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