Black Power

views updated May 18 2018

Black Power


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 Garveys (18871940) 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, 19411998) 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 (19251965). Malcolm had argued that the nonviolent tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968) 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.

Malcolms candid and fiery rhetoric appealed to many urban blacks, and his autobiography was devoured by Black Power advocates. Nat Turner (18001831), Che Guevara (19281967), Frantz Fanon (19251961), Amílcar Cabral (19241973), Kwame Nkrumah (19091972), Patrice Lumumba (19251961), Sékou Touré (19221984), and Toussaint Louverture (17431803) were also held in high regard. Black Power advocates were inspired by the struggle for African independence.

For many in the Black Power movement, Fanons 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, Garveys 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 Xs 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 Americas 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 peoples level of consciousness. Black people began calling themselves black instead of negro. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (19081972) 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 Browns Say It Loud, Im Black and Im Proud (1968), the Temptations Message to a Black Man, (1969) and the Impressions Were 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 (18751950) 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 Peoples 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 movements 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): 715.

Muse, Benjamin. 1970. The American Negro Revolution: From Nonviolence to Black Power, 19631967. 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, 19651975. 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: 100101.

Judson L. Jeffries

Black Power Movement

views updated May 21 2018

Black Power Movement

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 rightsera 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 (19411998). 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 powerlessnessand 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 (18341915) 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 (18091892) 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 (19191993), founder of the African Blood Brotherhood, by the Forty-Ninth State movement of Chicago lawyer Oscar C. Brown (18951990), 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 (19251965). Taught by Nation of Islam patriarch Elijah Muhammad (18971975) 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 (19661975), 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 generalfrom 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 (19091972), Sékou Touré (19221984), and Frantz Fanon (19251961), 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 Angelesbased 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)


Breitman, George, ed. By Any Means Necessary: Speeches, Interviews, and a Letter by Malcolm X. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.

Brown, Scott. Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage, 1967.

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, 19651975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Woodard, Komozi. A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

william l. van deburg (2005)

Black Power Movement

views updated May 21 2018


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.

further readings

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 Panther Party; Carmichael, Stokely; Civil Rights Acts; Malcolm X; Nation of Islam; NAACP; Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black Power Movement

views updated Jun 11 2018

Black Power Movement

The black power movement became a force among African Americans around 1965. It was so diverse and loosely coordinated, it is almost impossible to define. Although white Americans tended to interpret the “black power” slogan as a call to racial violence, blacks most often understood it as a call for racial pride and the achievement of political and economic power.

Frustrations in the mid-1960s

In the mid-1960s, the African American civil rights movement had seen many successes. Nonetheless, some activists were frustrated with the slow pace of change. They heard the call of the revered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) to remain nonviolent in the face of brutality, but they were not convinced that sit-ins (see Sit-in Movement ), marches, and Freedom Rides were the answer.

The nonviolent civil rights movement of 1954–65 had produced expectations that were difficult to fulfill. Blacks could enter restaurants, but many lacked the money to pay for a meal. Blacks could vote, but they had not gained the power to improve their lives through the political system. Many civil rights activists began to respond to the words of African American leader Malcolm X (1925–1965), who believed that African Americans should remain separate from the white population because, in his view, American society was—and always would be—racist.

SNCC and black power

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC; pronounced “snick”) was founded upon nonviolent principles in 1960 by student activists who were committed to confronting American racism and segregation. Operating in the most oppressive areas of the South and facing constant danger, dedicated SNCC workers were celebrated for their courage in the face of white intimidation in the early 1960s. By 1965, they were frustrated with the federal government's failure to protect their rights, and they faced continuing racism and economic and political inequality. That year, the SNCC gave up its nonviolent methods and its goals of organizing southern communities. It adopted instead the philosophy of black power promoted by SNCC leaders Stokely Carmichael

(also known as Kwame Turé; 1941–1998) and H. Rap Brown (later known as Jamal Al-Amin; 1943–).

At that point, the SNCC voted to exclude whites from important positions. The organization increasingly pushed for withdrawing from the American mainstream and forming a separate black society. From its offices in Atlanta, the organization churned out “black power” bumper stickers depicting a lunging black panther and history pamphlets that stressed the teachings of Malcolm X. This turn toward militancy created tension between the SNCC and some of the veteran civil rights leaders.

The Black Panthers and beyond

The most aggressive wing of the black power movement was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, organized in 1966. The Panthers carried loaded firearms to public appearances and considered themselves at war with the white power structure. By the end of the decade, the militant party had considerable support, especially among young African Americans. For a short time, the Black Panthers and the SNCC merged.

The Panthers were only one among many activist groups. While some black power groups called for their own black nation in Africa, others wanted to establish a new homeland in the United States. The majority of black power groups tried to create black communities in which African Americans controlled their own economic and political destinies and took pride in their own history and culture.

What is “black power”?

Carmichael popularized the term “black power” in 1965. He defined black power many times, and not always in the same way, but the general idea was that African Americans had the right to define and organize themselves as they saw fit and to protect themselves from racial violence. The term was disconcerting to moderate African American leaders, who feared it would provoke hostility among whites and undo their progress in civil rights. The term did, in fact, terrify many mainstream whites, who interpreted the term to mean African American domination and possibly even race war rather than simply black empowerment.

“Black power” was a political slogan, but it also denoted a cultural movement. African Americans emphasized their enhanced sense of pride through art and literature. Playwright and poet LeRoi Jones (1934–), who changed his name to Amiri Baraka, became a leader of the black arts movement, which sought to create positive images for blacks. Popular black singers such as James Brown (1933–2006) and Aretha Franklin (1942–) expressed the spirit of “soul.” Sports figures such as boxer Cassius Clay (1942–), who changed his name to Muhammad Ali, also identified with black power sentiments. At the 1968 Olympics, two African American athletes raised clenched fists in a “black power salute” on the victory stand after their event. At numerous colleges and universities, black students demanded black studies programs that would emphasize the contributions of African and African American people.

The influence of black power groups like the Black Panthers dwindled during the 1970s, but the commitment to black power within the African American community remained strong.

Black Power

views updated May 08 2018


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.

Charles PeteBanner-Haley

See alsoAfrican Americans ; Radicals and Radicalism ; andvol. 9:Black Power Speech ; andpicture (overleaf).