Black Power's Powerful Legacy
by Peniel E. Joseph, Ph.D.
The Chronicle Review (7/21/06)
As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by what has been called the "Black Power" movement. As a young boy in the 1980s, I sat mesmerized before public-television documentaries about the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s. But for me that decade truly came alive through the powerful, often fleeting images of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, and Black Panthers, who seemed bolder and more glamorous than anything I had ever seen. In college I devoured books and articles about the movement, with its mysterious and taboo aura.
However, the more I continued to read (and by now in graduate school), the more frustrated I became by the paucity of material that took its accomplishments, setbacks, and failures seriously. As a history professor, my intellectual curiosity turned into scholarly inquiry as I came to see black power as a largely unchronicled epic in American history; one that shared a complex relationship with the more richly documented modern civil-rights movement.
Black power represents one of the most enduring and controversial stories of racial tumult, social protest, and political upheaval of our time, complete with a cast of tragic and heroic historical characters: Black Muslims, FBI agents, Martin Luther King Jr., Black Panthers, Carmichael, Lyndon B. Johnson, the New Left, and Fidel Castro all play major and minor parts in the era this movement helped define. Black power's reach was global, spanning continents and crossing oceans, yet its iconic personalities and organizations (some of whom were key civil-rights activists) remain shadowy, almost forgotten figures in spite of their vital role in shaping still-raging debates about race, war, and democracy.
Common wisdom characterizes the movement as unabashedly violent, gratuitously misogynistic, politically ineffectual, and mercifully short-lived. Indeed, most discussions of black power don't begin until the mid-1960s. At least three reasons help explain that chronology. The 1965 urban upheaval in the Watts section of Los Angeles provides historians with a signal event that focused the nation's attention outside the South. King's rough reception among Watt's poorest sections in the riot's aftermath, at least according to the usual narrative, opened his eyes to an unimaginable level of urban misery. His subsequent activism in Chicago, where his attempts to organize open housing and slum clearance bumped into the city's ruthlessly efficient world of machine politics and the skepticism of black militants, becomes a harbinger of black power's growing influence in the urban North. Finally, the election of Carmichael as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in May 1966, followed by his famous invocation of the term "Black Power" a month later, symbolizes for many commentators the organization's symbolic shift from its promising idealistic beginnings to a bitter cynicism that led to an open break with King and civil-rights moderates.
But during the course of my research, I traced the movement's immediate origins back a decade earlier: to the 1950s, when, just as Southern civil-rights struggles were making national headlines, Northern black activists (many who had come of political age during the Great Depression and World War II) formed important relationships with Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam's outspoken and eloquent representative. In cities like New York and Detroit, Malcolm practiced his own brand of coalition politics through association with activists like Grace and Jimmy Boggs, John Henrik Clarke, Albert Cleage, and John Oliver Killens.
Stressing racial pride, the connection between civil rights in the United States and the third world, and political self-determination through bruising and at times deliberatively provocative protests, local militants in the North were simultaneously inspired by the heroic efforts at direct action of the civil-rights struggles in the South and repulsed by the spectacles of racial violence there. By the late 1950s, they had formed a parallel movement with no name, cynical about American democracy's willingness to defend black citizenship. In 1961 a group in New York including Maya Angelou, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), and Mae Mallory unleashed bedlam at the United Nations in demonstrations against the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The following year, radical black college students in Ohio founded the Revolutionary Action Movement, which was equally committed to socialism and armed self-defense and quickly formed beachheads in several states. In California activists associated with RAM founded Soulbook, a cultural magazine whose staff members included the future Black Panther Bobby Seale. In Detroit, black militants organized around the Group on Advanced Leadership in 1961 to protest urban-renewal plans. All found a measure of unity and a national spokesman in Malcolm X.
During the civil-rights movement's heroic period between 1954's Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision and 1965's Voting Rights Act, such activists laid the groundwork for the spectacular displays of racial militancy, cultural transformation, and political organizing witnessed during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the time in which black power captivated the national stage.
In the midst of my research, I received, in a matter of weeks, more than 1,500 pages of FBI files that I had requested on Stokely Carmichael. Born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and educated at Howard University, Carmichael was tall, handsome, intellectually agile, and equal parts angry and gregarious, carrying himself whether in sharecropper's overalls, business suits, or leather jackets with an air of unadorned dignity and grace that helped turn him into an international icon: black power's rock star.
In a late-spring heat wave in June 1966, hundreds of protesters descended upon Mississippi for a march that was as much about outrage as it was civil rights. The demonstrators, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmichael, had come to the Magnolia State to continue James Meredith's March Against Fear, after Meredith had been shot. On Thursday evening, June 16, an agitated Carmichael made his first black-power speech, following his arrest for trespassing. "This is the 27th time that I have been arrested," he proclaimed. "What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!"
According to Carmichael, black power represented political unity through robust self-determination: "It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations."
The national news media seized upon Carmichael's declaration as the signpost of a new militancy. Immediately following the March Against Fear, Time magazine judged the slogan "Black Power" to be "a racist philosophy" that preached segregation in reverse. Newsweek called it a "distorted cry" that was deeply frightening to white Americans. The Saturday Evening Post editorialized that the phrase would precipitate "a new white backlash," provoking the magazine to starkly confess its own racial prejudices: "We are all, let us face it, Mississippians. We all fervently wish that the Negro problem did not exist, or that, if it must exist, it could be ignored." U.S. News & World Report agonized over the term's meaning, looking toward "Negro moderates" to allay fears of reverse discrimination. Almost as soon as it was uttered, a new wave of black aspirations, dreams, and dissent became encapsulated within one powerful slogan that would become as hard to define as it would remain controversial.
Within the movement, Carmichael's style and tactics were also contentious. Activists were split over his in-your-face approach and his call for black people to work alone for their political goals. Among women, he came under fire for sexist comments regarding their role in political organizing (prone). While the remark was made in jest during a 1964 conference, Carmichael and black-power activists did embrace an aggressive vision of manhood one centered on black men's ability to deploy authority, punishment, and power. In that, they generally reflected their wider society's blinders about women and politics.
Yet beneath Carmichael's call for "Black Power" lies a more complicated story. His volatile image at the 1966 march marked both black power's first year of public recognition and shifting national priorities of civil-rights activism. Carmichael's increasing calls to oppose the Vietnam War (often punctuated at protests by chants of "Hell no, we won't go") would lead him to become one of the country's most vocal antiwar activists during the next year. His invocation of self-determination would increasingly lead him to embrace a Pan-Africanist vision in hope of restoring Africa as a world power.
The pages of FBI files that I received courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act detail Carmichael's interviews with foreign news media when he traveled, transcripts of speeches in America, and agency efforts to prosecute him on charges of sedition for his outspoken antiwar activities. Since only about a quarter of the almost 20,000 pages of Carmichael's files have been released to date, much remains to be discovered about his role and the movement to which he gave a name. The documents reflect bureau surveillance of Carmichael through the tumultuous summer of 1967, a year when major American cities experienced devastating riots. Not as well remembered as 1968 and its infamously cataclysmic and violent events, 1967 might be described as the "Year of Stokely Carmichael" all the more remarkable given the fact that he spent five months of it abroad, on a whirlwind international tour that cemented his reputation as the most dangerously charismatic activist of the black-power era.
At the start of 1967, Carmichael found himself trailed by ex-convict-turned-journalist (and future Black Panther) Eldridge Cleaver for a story in Ramparts magazine and mediating disputes among militants in the San Francisco Bay Area eager to be considered the vanguard of California's burgeoning black-power movement. By the spring, Carmichael was one of the featured speakers, along with King and Benjamin Spock, at New York City's massive mobilization against the Vietnam War. Leading groups of marchers waving Vietcong flags, he vowed to fight "LBJ's racist war." In May, after stepping down as chairman of S.N.C.C., Carmichael vowed to return to grassroots organizing in Washington, D.C., the site of some of his youthful activism as a Howard student. His promise to take over the city "lock, stock, and barrel" by promoting black rule made the FBI, local authorities, and political pundits take notice. "Stokely Carmichael says he's coming," warned The Wall Street Journal, "and the nation's capital is in a sweat." Such fears, however, turned out to be premature.
By July Carmichael was touring the world, first in London, where he shared the dais with radical intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and proclaimed that American cities would become "populated by peoples of the third world" who would not tolerate racism; then in Cuba, where he befriended Fidel Castro and held up the Cuban revolution as a daring experiment in freedom. In 1968 he began a short-lived alliance with the Black Panthers before leaving the United States for Conakry, Guinea (his favorite stop on his global tour, and where he lived in between speaking tours in the United States until he died in 1998).
The Black Panthers briefly represented the face of the new radicalism. Like surrealist painters, the Panthers imagined a world not yet in existence, but one they could will into being. Made up of reformed troublemakers, college students, and ex-cons, the Panthers brandished guns and law books in an at times quixotic effort to foment revolution from below. The Panthers, whose personal lives and often limited professional opportunities were shaped by the impoverished landscape of Oakland, Calif., set out to organize the black working class. Huey P. Newton, the seventh child of a preacher and a housewife who had been transplanted from Louisiana to Oakland, huddled in the offices of the North Oakland Service Center in October 1966 and dictated the party platform; Bobby Seale, his slightly older, equally driven but more practical friend, wrote it down. The Black Panther Party's 10-point manifesto, issued in 1966, called for black self-determination, decent housing and education, and the end to police brutality and exploitation in the ghetto.
The revolution the Panthers so confidently predicted did not go off as planned. Financially crippled, physically harassed by federal surveillance, and burdened by the descent of once-promising leaders into self-destructive behavior and corruption highlighted by factional splits and Newton's escalating drug abuse the Panthers had retreated to local organizing in Oakland by the early 1970s. They seemed far removed from their daringly romantic beginnings.
Black power's intellectual and political legacy is often obscured by the cringe-inducing polemics, threats of violence, and galloping sexism of the words of fire issued by activists like Carmichael, Cleaver, and Newton. Removed from the tumultuous historical setting of 1960s America, those words seem little more than the angry rhetoric of a justly forgotten era, of black nationalists blaming whites for the nation's worsening urban crisis and gun-toting Panthers vowing to lead a political revolution with an army of the black underclass. In popular memory, black power is a tragedy; a wrong turn from King's hopeful dream to hateful polemics. It has become a twisted bit of folklore, a cautionary tale about angry militants dragging down more promising movements for social justice.
Yet such a perspective ignores black power's complex relationship to the civil-rights movement. Both movements emerged during a moment of national racial crisis pregnant with historic possibilities, when African-Americans who had helped fight World War II found themselves shut out of postwar prosperity. Southern civil-rights activists harked back to the social justice advocated by black militants in the prewar years, although they scaled its radical social-democratic politics back. Black-power advocates took the notion of righting historical wrongs to a new level, promoting self-reliance, internationalism, and cooperation among black people. But despite rancorous debates over strategies and tactics, activists from one camp often shifted to the other, and individuals and organizations often favored both approaches at the same time. Both movements dreamed of redefining American democracy but discovered that there were no easy solutions to America's racial problems. Both had to settle for exposing the rough truths of racial justice and social transformation and in so doing, both helped transform America's racial landscape.
Black power's demise as a national movement coincided with America's deepening urban crisis, which would unfold coast to coast over the next decades. In the post-black-power era, African-Americans took political control of metropolitan centers at the very moment that cities were made vulnerable to crime, poverty, and failing public schools because of federal neglect, shrinking tax bases, and loss of industries. While we will never know how a thriving black-power movement might have confronted the soaring gang violence, crack epidemic, and poverty that gripped large sectors of the African-American community during the late 1970s and 1980s, black-power activists and their legacy did help ease the often heartbreaking transition from the hopeful Great Society rhetoric of the 1960s to the conservatism ushered in by the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.
The movement was more than a series of shootouts, race riots, and provocative sound bites. In a premulticultural age, where race shaped hope, opportunity, and identity, it helped remake black identity with new words, images, and politics. But if its confrontational posture quickened the pace of racial change, it also provoked a visceral reaction in white Americans who, almost overwhelmingly, could more easily identify with civil-rights activists than with black-power militants.
Forty years after the Meredith march, we can now better assess black power's impact on American society. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new generation of rap musicians and hip-hop artists deployed black-power icons as symbols of racially conscious and historically resonant political defiance. The rap group Public Enemy, in particular, helped introduce the movement's legacy to a new generation with anthems like "Fight the Power." While hip-hop reports reality from the street in the form of urban violence, drug abuse, and ennui neglected by the mainstream media, it also revels in the sexism, commercialization, and materialism that characterized the worst aspects of the black-power era.
In some spectacular instances, black power and hip-hop share bloodlines. Black Panther Afeni Shakur's son, Tupac, became a groundbreaking hip-hop artist and an icon after his 1996 death. As the child of a Black Panther, Tupac came of age in an era seemingly bereft of the type of political movements that had inspired his mother. But the connections among urban poverty, racism, and economic inequality that gave the Panthers their raison d'?tre became a motif for some of his most poignant, controversial, and successful music.
Black power's influence was also spread by the 1992 release of Spike Lee's film Malcolm X. The renewed attention to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first published in 1965 and reissued in 1996, helped make Malcolm mainstream enough to receive an official United States postage stamp. His evolution from infamous racial firebrand to black urban icon illustrates the movement's continued reverberation for a new generation.
Black power's impact thus remains powerfully resonant however fraught and contentious as a generation of black politicians, artists, and intellectuals have channeled the new black identity it first articulated in diverse and varied ways.
Stokely Carmichael and the wider black-power movement have been overshadowed by annual celebrations of martyrs, icons, political legislation, and landmark court cases commonly associated with the civil-rights era's heroic period. Civil-rights struggles are rightfully acknowledged as having earned black Americans a historic level of dignity. But black power accomplished a no less remarkable task, fueling the casually assertive identity and cultural pride that marks African-American life today. Ultimately, black power accelerated America's reckoning with its uncomfortable, often ugly racial past. In the process, it spurred a debate over racial progress, citizenship, and democracy that would scandalize and help change America.