The Black Power movement is one of the most misunderstood and understudied protest movements in American history (Jeffries 2006). Many whites believed that Black Power was synonymous with violence and black racism. Some black leaders viewed the movement as separatist, following a similar path to that of such earlier movements as Marcus Garvey’s (1887–1940) Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the National Movement for the Establishment of the Forty-ninth State, the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, and the National Union for People of African Descent.
The Black Power movement emerged at a time when the modern civil rights movement was in its final stage as a viable movement for social, political, and economic change. While some contend that the civil rights and Black Power movements were vastly different endeavors, the latter was indeed a logical extension of the former. In fact, many have maintained that Willie Ricks, a civil rights activist, introduced the Black Power slogan during a march in 1966. In 1968 Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael, 1941–1998) defined Black Power as “the ability of black people to politically get together and organize themselves so that they can speak from a position of strength rather than a position of weakness” (quoted in Ladner 1967, p. 8). It is apparent though, that while the Black Power movement was a continuation of the struggle waged by the civil rights movement, it was distinct in many ways.
Black Power organizations such as the Black Panther Party, US, the Republic of New Africa, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Revolutionary Action Movement, and others saw themselves as the heirs to Malcolm X (1925–1965). Malcolm had argued that the nonviolent tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) were not a viable option for black people. Malcolm viewed integration as a surrender to white supremacy, for its aims of total assimilation into white society implied that African Americans had little that was worth preserving.
Malcolm’s candid and fiery rhetoric appealed to many urban blacks, and his autobiography was devoured by Black Power advocates. Nat Turner (1800–1831), Che Guevara (1928–1967), Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Amílcar Cabral (1924–1973), Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972), Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961), Sékou Touré (1922–1984), and Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803) were also held in high regard. Black Power advocates were inspired by the struggle for African independence.
For many in the Black Power movement, Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) was considered a blueprint for revolution in America. The Wretched of the Earth distilled the lessons of the Algerian war for anticolonial movements everywhere. In terms of organization building, Garvey’s UNIA served as a model for many Black Power advocates.
The 1965 assassination of Malcolm X coupled with the urban uprisings of 1964 and 1965 ignited the Black Power movement. Some young black activists committed themselves to continuing the unfinished work of Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro-American Unity by forming their own organizations. During the summer of 1965, the predominantly black Watts district in Los Angeles reached its boiling point and erupted in violence in response to the mistreatment of a black motorist by members of the California Highway Patrol. This uprising was arguably the most catastrophic of its era; it signaled to America that some blacks were willing to lash out against the establishment in a violent way when consistently denied the most basic of human rights. Ironically, this rebellion occurred just a few days after the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Consequently, for many blacks it was clear that oppression was too deeply entrenched in America’s institutions to be overcome by civil rights legislation that addressed the symptoms and symbols of black inequality rather than the root causes.
By 1968 the Black Power movement was in full gear. Thousands of blacks all over the country took to the streets in response to the killing of Dr. King. Months later, black athletes staged protests at the Olympic Games in Mexico City as a way of bringing attention to the plight of African Americans in the United States.
The Black Power movement was dispersed throughout the United States. The civil rights movement, on the other hand, was to a large extent a southern-based movement. Unlike the civil rights movement, whites were prohibited from joining any of the Black Power organizations. With the exception of the Black Panther Party, Black Power organizations did not form alliances with white groups. Black Powerites sought to be free of any white influence or interference.
While all of the Black Power organizations believed in black control of their communities, they were not monolithic in their approach to that end. The civil rights movement sought to dismantle desegregation in public accommodations and to exercise the right of black Americans to vote. For many Black Powerites, integration was a nonissue and nonviolence was out of the question. The political philosophy of the organizations that comprised the Black Power movement ran the gamut. Some were black nationalist, others were cultural nationalist, while still others considered themselves Marxist-Leninist.
The Black Power movement was preoccupied with increasing black people’s level of consciousness. Black people began calling themselves black instead of negro. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (1908–1972) of New York spoke of Black Power at a rally in 1965 in Chicago and elaborated on it in his Howard University commencement speech the following year. He exclaimed that Black Power was “a working philosophy for a new breed of cats … who categorically refuse to compromise or negotiate any longer for their rights … who reject the old-line established white financed, white controlled, white washed Negro leadership” (quoted in Muse 1970, p. 242).
The Black Power movement not only represented a change in tactical strategy, but also a change in mind-set. For instance, the black music industry, with its roots in gospel and rhythm and blues became nationalist in an extraordinary way. Songs like James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), the Temptations’ “Message to a Black Man,” (1969) and the Impressions’ “We’re a Winner” (1967) established a distinctive sound that became the preferred expression for a generation of politically conscious young black Americans. Some blacks chose to don African garb and adopt African names. Some chose to wear their hair in ways that were more distinctively nonwhite. In the fall of 1966, Howard University students elected as homecoming queen a woman who ran on a Black Power platform and wore the emerging Afro hairstyle. “Black Is Beautiful” became the mantra among Black Powerites.
Young black activists from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to the University of California at Berkeley established black student unions and demanded black studies programs, more black faculty, and proactive recruitment and admissions policies. Black Power advocates claimed that most African Americans knew little about their history. Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950) had made the same point years earlier: “The Negro knows practically nothing of his history and his ‘friends’ are not permitting him to learn it.… And if a race has no history, if it has no worth-while tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of extermination” (Wiggins 1987, p. 45; Young 1982, p. 100).
Black Power advocates felt little need to prove to whites that they were deserving of the same rights. From their standpoint, to whom were whites to be equal? They believed that their time would be better spent educating the community, building institutions, and meeting the daily needs of the people by providing protection, food, shelter, and clothing.
The Black Power movement did not grow out of a vacuum; it was firmly rooted in the rich tradition of black protest. Like the slave rebellions and the Garvey movement, it was extensively organized. Its use of the written word, art, and culture to heighten the consciousness of the black community also linked the movement to the Harlem Renaissance (or the New Negro Renaissance), which relied heavily on these black expressive endeavors.
The Black Power movement also heightened the consciousness of other oppressed peoples throughout the world and greatly influenced the direction of their movements. The Black Power movement had a profound impact, for example, on the struggle for equality in the Caribbean, where freedom fighters started the Afro-Caribbean movement, activists in Barbados formed the People’s Progressive Movement, and grassroots organizers in Bermuda launched the Black Beret group (Jeffries 2006).
By the mid-1970s, the Black Power movement was for all intents and purposes over. Government repression, which included assassinations of Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton in Chicago, and Carl Hampton of Houston, raids, arrests, and harassment of many of the movement’s members, gets much of the credit for the decline of the Black Power movement. In addition to repression, by 1973 African American activists had begun to concentrate their efforts on getting blacks and progressive whites elected to public office. Some saw the electoral process as a significantly less dangerous undertaking. Intragroup squabbles and government programs such as welfare (which underwent a loosening of eligibility requirements) also worked to dampen militant activism. While a few Black Power organizations remained active well into the mid-1970s, by the time of the election of President Jimmy Carter in November 1976, the Black Power movement was dead.
SEE ALSO Black Panthers; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Congress of Racial Equality; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
Jeffries, Judson L., ed. 2006. Black Power in the Belly of the Beast. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Ladner, Joyce. 1967. What “Black Power” Means to Negroes in Mississippi. Transaction (November): 7–15.
Muse, Benjamin. 1970. The American Negro Revolution: From Nonviolence to Black Power, 1963–1967. New York: Citadel.
Ogbar, Jeffrey O. G. 2004. Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Van DeBurg, William L. 1992. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wiggins, William H. 1987. O Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
Young, Alfred. 1982. The Historical Origin and Significance of the Afro-American History Month Observance. Negro History Bulletin 45: 100–101.
Judson L. Jeffries
"Black Power." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/black-power
"Black Power." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/black-power
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Black Power Movement
BLACK POWER MOVEMENT
The Black Power movement grew out of the civil rights movement that had steadily gained momentum through the 1950s and 1960s. Although not a formal movement, the Black Power movement marked a turning point in black-white relations in the United States and also in how blacks saw themselves. The movement was hailed by some as a positive and proactive force aimed at helping blacks achieve full equality with whites, but it was reviled by others as a militant, sometimes violent faction whose primary goal was to drive a wedge between whites and blacks. In truth, the Black Power movement was a complex event that took place at a time when society and culture was being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) and the southern christian leadership conference (SCLC) worked with blacks and whites to create a desegregated society and eliminate racial discrimination. Their efforts generated positive responses from a broad spectrum of people across the country. Rev. martin luther king jr., who headed the SCLC, made significant headway with his adherence to nonviolent tactics. In 1964, President lyndon b. johnson signed the civil rights act and a year later he signed the voting rights act.
civil rights legislation was an earnest and effective step toward eliminating inequality between blacks and whites. Even with the obvious progress, however, the reality was that prejudice could not be legislated away. Blacks still faced lower wages than whites, higher crime rates in their neighborhoods, and unspoken but palpable racial discrimination. Young blacks in particular saw the civil rights movement as too mainstream to generate real social change. What they wanted was something that would accelerate the process and give blacks the same opportunities as whites, not just socially but also economically and politically. Perhaps more important, they felt that the civil rights movement was based more on white perceptions of civil rights than black perceptions.
Not all blacks had been equally impressed with the civil rights movement. malcolm x and the nation of islam, for example, felt that racial self-determination was a critical and neglected element of true equality. By the mid-1960s, dissatisfaction with the pace of change was growing among blacks. The term "black power" had been around since the 1950s, but it was stokely carmichael, head of the student nonviolent coordinating committee (SNCC), who popularized the term in 1966.
Carmichael led a push to transform SNCC from a multiracial community activist organization into an all-black social change organization. Late in 1966, two young men, huey newton and bobby seale, formed the black panther party for self-defense (BPP), initially as a group to track incidents of police violence. Within a short time groups such as SNCC and BPP gained momentum, and by the late 1960s the Black Power movement had made a definite mark on American culture and society.
The Black Power movement instilled a sense of racial pride and self-esteem in blacks. Blacks were told that it was up to them to improve their lives. Black Power advocates encouraged blacks to form or join all-black political parties that could provide a formidable power base and offer a foundation for real socioeconomic progress. For years, the movement's leaders said, blacks had been trying to aspire to white ideals of what they should be. Now it was time for blacks to set their own agenda, putting their needs and aspirations first. An early step, in fact, was the replacement of the word "Negro" (a word associated with the years of slavery) with "black."
The movement generated a number of positive developments. Probably the most noteworthy of these was its influence on black culture. For the first time, blacks in the United States were encouraged to acknowledge their African heritage. colleges and universities established black studies programs and black studies departments. Blacks who had grown up believing that they were descended from a backwards people now found out that African culture was as rich and diverse as any other, and they were encouraged to take pride in that heritage. The Black Arts movement, seen by some as connected to the Black Power movement flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Young black poets, authors, and visual artists found their voices and shared those voices with others. Unlike earlier black arts movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, the new movement primarily sought out a black audience.
The same spirit of racial unity and pride that made the Black Power movement so dynamic also made it problematic—and to some, dangerous. Many whites, and a number of blacks, saw the movement as a black separatist organization bent on segregating blacks and whites and undoing the important work of the civil rights movement. There is no question that Black Power advocates had valid and pressing concerns. Blacks were still victims of racism, whether they were being charged a higher rate for a mortgage, getting paid less than a white coworker doing the same work, or facing violence at the hands of white racists. But the solutions that some Black Power leaders advocated seemed only to create new problems. Some, for example, suggested that blacks receive paramilitary training and carry guns to protect themselves. Though these individuals insisted this device was solely a means of self-defense and not a call to violence, it was still unnerving to think of armed civilians walking the streets.
Also, because the Black Power movement was never a formally organized movement, it had no central leadership, which meant that different organizations with divergent agendas often could not agree on the best course of action. The more radical groups accused the more mainstream groups of capitulating to whites, and the more mainstream accused the more radical of becoming too ready to use violence. By the 1970s, most of the formal organizations that had come into prominence with the Black Power movement, such as the SNCC and the Black Panthers, had all but disappeared.
The Black Power movement did not succeed in getting blacks to break away from white society and create a separate society. Nor did it help end discrimination or racism. It did, however, help provide some of the elements that were ultimately necessary for blacks and whites to gain a fuller understanding of each other.
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage Books.
Cross, Theorore. 1984. The Black Power Imperative. New York: Faulkner.
Van Deburg, William, L. 1992. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
"Black Power Movement." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-power-movement
"Black Power Movement." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/black-power-movement
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
BLACK POWER encompasses a political belief in self-determination, anti-racism, and racial consciousness among African Americans. The term became prominently known when, in June 1966 during a protest march in the South, Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Turé) and Willie Ricks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee used the phrase as a rallying cry. The ambiguity of the term led to many different interpretations. The media and some mainstream civil rights organizations saw Black Power as negative because of its perceived anti-white and separatist tone. But others, ranging from black intellectuals to political activists, saw Black Power as a positive expression of cultural nationalism. Over time, it became another means by which black Americans united themselves to achieve equality, freedom, and dignity.
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. London: Cape, 1968.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds. "Black Power." In Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999.
"Black Power." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-power
"Black Power." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/black-power