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The Black Power Movement

Background and Summary

Black Power is a political movement among persons of African descent throughout the world, though it is often associated primarily with Blacks in the United States. Most prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the movement emphasized racial pride and the creation of Black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote Black collective interests, advance Black values, and secure Black autonomy.

The earliest known usage of the term "Black Power" came from a 1954 book by Richard Wright titled "Black Power." The first use of the term in a political sense may have been by Robert F. Williams, an NAACP chapter president, writer, and publisher of the 1950s and 1960s. New York politician Adam Clayton Powell used the term on May 29, 1966, during a baccalaureate address at Howard University; "To demand these God-given rights is to seek Black power," were his famous words.

Coining the Power-filled Phrase

The first use of the term "Black Power" as a social and political slogan was by Stokely Carmichael and Mukasa Dada, who was then known as Willie Ricks. They were both organizers and spokes-people for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. On June 16, 1966, after the shooting of James Meredith during the March against Fear rally, Carmichael commented: "This is the 27th time I have been arrested and I ain't going to jail no more!” He continued, “The only way we gonna stop them White men from whuppin' us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin' now is Black Power!"

Differences in Opinion

Some, though not all, Black Power adherents believed in racial separation, Black nationalism, and the necessity to use violence as a means of achieving their objectives. Such positions were, for the most part, in direct conflict with those of leaders of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, and thus the two movements have often been viewed as inherently antagonistic. However, certain groups and individuals participated in both civil rights and Black Power activism. Internationalist offshoots of Black Power include African Internationalism, pan-Africanism, Black Nationalism and Black supremacy.

The movement for Black Power in the U.S. came during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Many members of SNCC, among them Carmichael, were becoming frustrated with the non-violent approach to racism and inequality that was articulated and practiced by King, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other moderates. He and others ultimately rejected desegregation as the primary objective.

SNCC's membership was generally younger than that of the other “big five civil rights organizations: The NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Congress of Racial Equality. Soon, members of the SNCC became increasingly more militant and outspoken. The group also recognized that racist people had no qualms about the use of violence against Blacks who would not "stay in their place in society," and that "accommodationist" civil rights strategies had failed to secure sufficient concessions for the Black community.

As a result, and as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, increasingly radical, more militant voices came to the foreground aggressively challenging White hegemony. Increasing numbers of Black youth, particularly, had come to reject the moderate path of cooperation, integration and assimilation that their elders adhered to. They rejected the notion of appealing to the public's conscience and dominant religious creeds, and they cultivated viewpoints modeled after those articulated by another Black activist of the prior century: abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. ...Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Many civil rights leaders also believed in agitation, but most did not believe in violent retaliation.

Power in Numbers

Over the remainder of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a division between those aligned with Martin Luther King Jr. versus those aligned with Carmichael, marked by their respective slogans, "Freedom Now" or "Black Power."

While King never endorsed Carmichael’s slogan, his rhetoric sometimes came close to it. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here?, King wrote that "power is not the White man's birthright; it will not be legislated for us and delivered in neat government packages."

Advocates of Black Power generally argue that assimilation or integration robs Black people of their dignity and heritage. Omali Yeshitela, leader of the Uhuru Movement and Chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, argues that Africans have historically always had to fight to protect their lands, cultures and freedoms from European colonialists, and that seeking integration into a society that has stolen one's people and wealth is more than the Marxist critique of "uniting with imperialism;" it is an act of treason.

Bayard Rustin, an elder statesman of the Civil Rights Movement, was a harsh critic of Black Power in its earliest days. Writing in 1966, shortly after the March against Fear, Rustin said that Black Power “not only lacks any real value for the Civil Rights Movement, but that its propagation is positively harmful. It diverts the movement from a meaningful debate over strategy and tactics, it isolates the Negro community, and it encourages the growth of anti-Negro forces.” He particularly criticized the CORE and SNCC for their turn toward Black Power, arguing that these two organizations once “awakened the country, but now they emerge isolated and demoralized, shouting a slogan that may afford a momentary satisfaction but that is calculated to destroy them and their movement.”

Positive Byproducts of the Movement

Today, most Black power advocates have not changed their self-sufficiency argument. Racism still exists worldwide and it is generally accepted that Blacks in the United States did not assimilate into U.S. "mainstream" culture either by King's integration measures or by the self-sufficiency measures of Black Power. Rather, Blacks arguably became evermore oppressed, partially by "their own" people in a new Black stratum of the middle class and the ruling class or through what has been come to be known as “colorism.” Black Power advocates generally argue that the reason for this stalemate and further oppression of the vast majority of Blacks is because Black Power's objectives have not had the opportunity to be fully realized through.

The Nation of Islam is perhaps the best-known contemporary Black Power group. Another fairly well-known group espousing most of the philosophies common to Black Power are the New Black Panthers.

Although the concept remained imprecise and fluid, adopted by populations ranging from business people who used it to push Black capitalism to revolutionaries who sought an end to capitalism, Black Power exerted a significant influence. The underlying concepts of Black Power aided in organizing scores of community self-help groups and institutions that did not depend on Whites to stay afloat. The movement encouraged the establishment of things such as, Black studies programs at colleges, mobilization of Black voters to elect Black candidates and encouraged greater racial pride and self-esteem. As never before, Blacks rejected skin-bleaching creams and hair-straighteners, and instead, people were giving their children African names and gloried in soul music. It was a massive return to Black-American roots.

The “Black is Beautiful” movement spiraled off of the Black Power ideology. It is a cultural movement beginning in the 1960s that aimed to dispel the widespread notion that Black people's natural traits such as skin color, facial features and hair are inherently ugly. John Sweat Rock was the first to coin the famous phrase "Black is Beautiful." The movement asked that men and women stop straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin in attempt to reach the unattainable European-Americans’ standard of beauty. The prevailing view of American culture was that Black features were less attractive or less desirable than White people’s features. The movement is largely responsible for the popularity of the Afro hairstyle. Most importantly, it gave a generation of Blacks the courage to feel good about who they were and how they looked. This reaffirmation carried over into today’s society, where many Black people, particularly Black women, are more proud of their hair, faces, and bodies than other races in terms of self-esteem.

The Black Arts Movement is the artistic branch of the Black Power movement founded in Harlem by writer and activist Amiri Baraka, who was born Everett LeRoy Jones. This movement inspired Blacks to establish ownership of publishing houses, magazines, journals and art institutions. Other well-known writers that were involved with this movement included Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and Rosa Grey. Although not strictly involved with the Movement, other notable Black writers such as novelists Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison can be considered to share some of its artistic and thematic concerns.

Ishmael Reed, who is considered neither a movement apologist nor advocate said "I wasn't invited to participate because I was considered an integrationist" but he went on to explain the positive aspects of the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power movement: “I think what Black Arts did was inspire a whole lot of Black people to write. Moreover, there would be no multiculturalism movement without Black Arts. Latinos, Asian-Americans and others all say they began writing as a result of the example of the 1960s. Blacks gave the example that you don't have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture. I think the challenge is for cultural sovereignty and Black Arts struck a blow for that.


Sources:; Bobo, K.; Randall, J.; and Max, S., eds. Cabin John, Organizing for Social Change: A Mandate For Activity In The 1990s. Maryland: Seven Locks Press, 1991; Scott Saul, "On the Lower Frequencies: Rethinking the Black Power movement" Harper's, December 2006. p.92-98, p. 94; Paul Boyer, "The Enduring Vision," 2003; Fred R. Shapiro, "Yale Book of Quotations," Yale University Press, 2006; Rustin, Bayard, "Black Power" and Coalition Politics. Commentary. PBS, 1965;;;read=79921;; style="mso-ascii-font-family: Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font: minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family: Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font: minor-latin">

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