The Black Power movement was a collective, actionoriented expression of racial pride, strength, and self-definition that percolated through all strata of Afro-America during the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. Interpreted variously both within and outside black communities, Black Power was a logical progression of civil rights–era efforts to achieve racial equality. It also was a reaction against the tactics, pace, and certain of the operative assumptions of the earlier movement.
As a political expression, the term Black Power was given a national forum during the summer of 1966 by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) head Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998). In Greenwood, Mississippi, he told a crowd of civil rights workers and reporters, “We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” (Sellers, 1973, p. 166). The audience responded by chanting the new slogan. For many, “Black Power” would replace “One Man, One Vote” and “We Shall Overcome” as the rallying cry of the freedom struggle. Reflecting the frustration felt by civil rights activists whose hopes for a rapid transformation of U.S. racial relationships had proven illusionary, it came to symbolize rejection of black moderate leadership, white liberal allies, and the time-honored integrationist ethic.
According to Black Power militants, nonviolent approaches to integrationist ends had done little to alleviate poverty, end de facto segregation, promote legal equality, or counteract white-sponsored terrorism. Instead, traditional strategies had encouraged harmful assimilationist tendencies and seemed productive only of continued dependency and the debasement of racial culture. The preferred alternative was to seek personal and group empowerment via a variety of initiatives grounded in either pluralist or black-nationalist ideologies.
Both nationalists and pluralists understood that white power, as manifested in the workings of American economic, political, and intellectual life, constituted a major impediment to the advancement of black Americans. They held that in order to surmount this barrier, blacks had to mobilize, close ranks, and build group strength in all areas of community life. With unity achieved, African Americans would form a significant power bloc and be able to exercise true freedom of choice for the first time. Nationalists might then choose to go it alone, either in “liberated” urban enclaves, in a separate nation-state, or simply in the realm of the psyche. Pluralists could hope to parlay their newfound racial solidarity into a representative share of both local and national decision-making power. Having established a corporate consciousness and sense of collective responsibility, cultural pride would replace despair. The black community would be able to employ its own, to govern itself, and to protect its residents against external
enemies. Thereafter, the myth of the melting pot never again could be used to obscure the role of minority group power in ordering societal affairs.
All manner of Black Power theorists believed that psychological liberation was a prerequisite for acquiring these more tangible manifestations of power. It was anticipated that a “revolution of the mind” would lead to enhanced group cohesion, alter extant patterns of cultural hegemony, and provide a guiding force for black activism. Noting that a people ashamed of themselves cannot soon hope to be free, they claimed that African Americans had the right to reject organizational structures, values, and methodologies that emanated from sources outside the group experience. Also claimed was the right to define whites. Even commonplace concepts such as “truth” and “beauty” were to be redefined. Blacks, they said, were a capable, attractive people with a rich cultural heritage. To be assertive and take pride in skin color and historical accomplishments was to remove the negative connotations of race that had long served as a constraining social force.
Although the concept may have seemed unfamiliar, Black Power’s ideological roots ran deep. Inextricably intertwined with Afro-America’s historical struggles for freedom, its essential spirit was the product of generations of black people confronting powerlessness—and surviving. The widely expressed desire to preserve and honor racial distinctives, to define the world in black terms, and to experience the joys of self-discovery and autonomy reaffirmed the teachings of earlier generations of activists whose pioneering efforts at individual and group empowerment were held up as behavioral benchmarks.
Before the Civil War, black Americans formed fraternal, mutual aid, and cooperative organizations to promote solidarity and aid in racial survival. In militant fashion, their reform conventions made it clear that black people would speak for themselves and fight their own battles, no matter what the odds. Such gatherings condemned both slaveholding and the legal proscriptions that hindered free black advancement. Those in attendance discussed proposals to encourage runaways and to aid insurrection movements. They also celebrated the accomplishments of heroic ancestors and compared their physical attributes favorably with whites. Many demanded to be called “African” or “colored” rather than some slurred variant of the Portuguese os negros.
Although suspicious of white-dominated groups such as the American Colonization Society, antebellum activists formulated a variety of plans to create an independent, black-run state in West Africa. This notion of establishing a racial refuge and showcase for black initiative outside the United States was reinvigorated during the late nineteenth century by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915) of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and it flowered during the 1920s in the pages of Marcus Garvey‘s Negro World.
During the Great Depression, the Pan-African sentiment encapsulated in this deep-seated longing for a national homeland could be seen in the outpouring of support for Ethiopia in its struggles with Italy. In later years, numerous black Americans were inspired by the anti-colonial uprisings that foreshadowed independence in Kenya, Ghana, and across the continent.
Following the collapse of Radical Reconstruction in the 1870s, a domestic variant of this empowering nation-building enthusiasm was seen in the resettlement movement to Kansas and Oklahoma. Benjamin Singleton’s (1809–1892) efforts to form African-American enclaves in the Plains states earned him the sobriquet “Pap: Moses of the colored exodus,” while talk of turning Oklahoma into an all-black state was spurred by the founding of dozens of black towns. As grassroots examples of racial solidarity, these projects promoted the ethic of self-determination throughout the southern and border states. Always compelling, this concept of creating a black nation within a nation was carried into the twentieth century by Cyril Briggs (1919–1993), founder of the African Blood Brotherhood, by the Forty-Ninth State movement of Chicago lawyer Oscar C. Brown (1895–1990), and by Depression-era communists through their “self-determination in the Black Belt” doctrine.
By the mid-1960s, no single figure more completely encapsulated the interconnected themes of psychological liberation, Pan-African unity, and institution-building than Malcolm X (1925–1965). Taught by Nation of Islam patriarch Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) that there could be neither peace nor true freedom in the world until “every man is in his own country” (Lincoln, 1963, p. 6), the charismatic Black Muslim minister was a tireless champion of group empowerment. When he disavowed the philosophy of nonviolence, proclaimed Black America’s right to self-defense “by any means necessary” (Breitman, 1970, p. 54), and labeled white liberal allies of the civil rights movement as hypocrites and deceivers, many African Americans agreed. After he had informed his audiences that they were a colonized people firmly linked to other black world communities by white exploitation, some began to formulate a new understanding of realpolitik. In highlighting the need for a spiritual and cultural back-to-Africa movement, as well as the expansion of black-run businesses and educational institutions, he fore-shadowed later, more fully developed, Black Power sentiment.
During the movement’s peak years of visibility and influence (1966–1975), African-American activists utilized a variety of programmatic approaches to effect a revolution in minority-group affairs. Stratagems grounded in pluralistic conceptualizations of U.S. society often seemed less precipitous than those favored by revolutionary, territorial, or cultural nationalists. Nevertheless, each of the competing ideological camps was capable of expressing “authentic” Black Power thought. Both pluralists and nationalists sought to combat the psychological, political, and economic problems plaguing black communities through purposeful self-definition. By resisting cultural diffusion, establishing their own priorities, and building outward and upward from a foundational core of group values, they intended to gain entry into the national storehouse of influence, respect, and power.
African-American pluralists concentrated their efforts on an area broadly defined as “community control.” A major goal was to reorient and reinvigorate institutions that were central to modern urban life. They sought to bring schools, hospitals, and government agencies closer to the people by atomizing existing centers of power. Optimally, decision making would be transferred from bureaucratic outsiders to indigenous leaders who were better equipped to define priorities and win the cooperation of local residents. It was anticipated that the presence of such individuals on key councils, boards, and commissions would mitigate the destructive effects of institutionalized racism. In this fashion, the special needs of inner-city residents could be addressed fully and in a sensitive manner.
Typically, those who attempted to form such power blocs in the central city claimed they were not being anti-white, but problack. As members of other ethnic groups had done, they refused to be patronized or dominated. Instead, with the support of sympathetic policymakers, they would band together in cooperative ventures to address common concerns. Maintaining that human rights should take precedence over property rights, they sought ways to rid their communities of absentee landlords and storekeepers. New black-owned businesses, guided by consumer-oriented codes of conduct, were encouraged. Plans were drawn up for the transfer of established firms from white to black management and control. The merits of forming neighborhood tenant associations, credit unions, employment agencies, and development corporations were debated extensively. It was hoped that community control would improve public education and expand the workforce skills-base, thereby enabling formerly unemployed youth, welfare recipients, and Aid to Dependant Children mothers to increase their earning power. As the movement grew, black activists prepared to reorganize the structure of municipal government and city life in general—from bottom to top.
Noting the previous generation’s lack of success in alleviating poverty, many African Americans saw little hope of improving their lot without the creation of a viable independent political movement. Political apathy was widespread and the race remained a third-class influence within the two-party system. To remedy this situation, a variety of proposals were forwarded that sought to nurture and expand the black vote until it became a true source of empowerment. Most were pluralistic in the sense that they envisioned the eventual sharing of political power with other interest groups. At gatherings such as the national black political conventions held in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 and in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1974, delegates probed the inadequacies of the existing system and established guidelines for endorsing candidates. Energized by these meetings, black officeholders formed the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and the National Conference of Black Mayors to promote the goals of the new black politics. Those most skeptical of entering into strategic alliances with nonblacks opted to promote a “third party” movement modeled on the successes of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Lowndes County (Alabama) Freedom Organization.
African-American nationalists sought to break with white society in an even more dramatic and permanent fashion. Members of the Nation of Islam, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Republic of New Africa were especially vocal in presenting proposals for the acquisition of sovereign territory. Hoping eventually to bargain with mainstream power brokers at a distance and from a position of strength, they developed ambitious plans to relocate abroad in expatriate settlements, to carve black living spaces out of existing southern political units, and to transform impoverished northern slums into constituent components of a prosperous city-state federation. Wherever it was to be located, the newly liberated territory would be governed through parallel institutions but guided by nontraditional, even non-Western, values.
Influenced by the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), Sékou Touré (1922–1984), and Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Black Liberation Army felt that any alteration of territorial boundaries had to be accompanied by a thoroughgoing socialist transformation of society. These revolutionary nationalists held that the right to self-determination was inherent in all nations, including the black “internal colony” of the United States. The founding of a black nation-state was to be viewed as part of the world liberation movement, not as an end in itself. Led by the black “peasantry” (variously defined as the laboring class or the underclass), this epic reformulation of caste and class relationships would be accomplished by violent means, if necessary. After the establishment of a worker-controlled international order, racism, capitalism, and imperialism would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
For other nationalists, a black cultural renaissance became the central component of the revolutionary struggle for empowerment. Supporters of groups such as the Los Angeles–based US Organization believed that it was a mistake to pick up a gun without first reaffirming the beauty and uniqueness of black folk culture. By asserting racial distinctives via clothing, language, and hairstyle, and by recounting group history through the literary and performing arts, cultural nationalists sought to encourage self-actualization and to discredit assumptions of white cultural superiority. Throughout the era, their colorful celebrations of blackness fostered pride and helped spread the Black Power message nationwide. In doing so, they provided the impetus for the flowering of a black arts movement among their contemporaries. In later years, cultural nationalist precepts played an important role in the development of Afrocentric models for urban education.
Although ideological infighting, U.S. counterintelligence intrigues, bad press, and tactical errors disrupted hoped-for unity, Black Power had tangible political and psychological effects and left a distinctive cachet on the cultural landscape. Key contributors to an ongoing revolt against white domination, 1960s pluralists and nationalists decolonized minds and heightened expectations. They introduced many within the mainstream to the plight of the less privileged. They also raised substantive issues in aesthetics and created a receptive audience for the next generation of race-conscious writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Black Power motivated African-Americans of the 1960s and 1970s to redefine themselves as members of a beautiful, capable, highly cultured race, to become entrepreneurs, and to run for public office.
Black Power’s challenge to the white world order also encouraged members of other oppressed groups to question the legitimacy of prevailing social and cultural norms. During the final decades of the century, both the positive and negative experiences of black militants informed the organizational efforts of U.S. ethnic- and gender-based rights advocates. Internationally, the black empowerment model was utilized by South African activists working to create a Black Consciousness movement that would speed the demise of apartheid. In varying degrees, it helped mobilize support for a Black Power movement in Trinidad, a Black Soul movement in Brazil, and numerous campaigns to extend long-overdue governmental and economic reforms throughout the Third World. Today, the residual influence of the movement can be seen whenever marginalized people band together to contest what the SNCC’s Stokely Carmichael once termed “the dictatorship of definition, interpretation, and consciousness.”
See also Afrocentrism; Black Panther Party for Self Defense; Carmichael, Stokely; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Garvey, Marcus; Jackson, George Lester; Malcolm X; Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century; Newton, Huey P.; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
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Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Glaude, Eddie S., Jr., ed. Is It Nation Time?: Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Jones, Charles E., ed. The Black Panther Party Reconsidered. Baltimore, Md.: Black Classic Press, 1998
Lincoln, C. Eric. “Extremist Attitudes in the Black Muslim Movement.” New South 18 (1963).
McCartney, John T. Black Power Ideologies: An Essay in African-American Political Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. Black Power: Radical Politics and AfricanAmerican Identity. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Sellers, Cleveland. The River of No Return: The Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. New York: William Morrow, 1973.
Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Van Deburg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
william l. van deburg (2005)