The term “Black Power”, although commonly used to denote the militant political ethos which emerged from the African-American civil rights movement during the latter half of the 1960s, was a mercurial, malleable concept in reality, which came to encapsulate an array of political groups, ideological standpoints and cultural movements. The phrase engendered consternation amongst white and black sections of society alike from its first “official” utterance on the Meredith March in 1966 by Willie Ricks [Mukasa Dada] and Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture], then chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Standing at the intersection of Freedom and Love Street in Itta Bena, Mississippi, Carmichael declared, “We been saying freedom for six years and we aint got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” (Sellers, 1966, 166-167) Ricks caught the mood of the crowd and led them in the chant of a phrase which was to cause jubilation and recrimination in equal measure.
The mainstream American media was slow to understand the black power movement, but quick to fear it. Newsstands blazed with indignation as Time headlines railed against “young demagogues” and “Negro hotheads” (Time, 1966). Black power imagery branded itself into America’s cultural consciousness, epitomised by a Newsweek photo of marchers carrying a placard emblazoned with a snarling panther and the provocative words, “Move on over, or we’ll move on over you” (Newsweek, 1966).
This reliance on confrontational iconography was to define the fledgling movement. Black power was only fit for print when it sold papers, and it only sold papers when it was loud, alien, frightening and violent. From the outset, black power was presented in a two-dimensional manner due to white America’s apparent aversion to investigating beneath the surface of a photogenic and alluring image. From this perspective, ideological and practical distinctions were obscured in the media avalanche of berets, shotguns and snarling beasts.
The public face of black power was a carefully crafted enterprise from the start, most obviously epitomised in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, formed in 1966. Everything about the Panthers’ iconography, from their snarling symbol, “a bold beautiful animal, representing the strength and dignity of black demands today”, to the classic garb of beret, dark glasses, shotgun and the oft-forgotten law book, was designed to project an image of resilience and confidence (Carmichael, 1966, 8). Yet as David Hilliard, Panther Chief of Staff, commented, there was a fine line between the effective use of violent imagery and its appropriation toward a negative stereotype (Hilliard, 2008). According to its exponents, black power rhetoric was designed to engage the average African-American, not to breed riots. Violence was only justified in self-defence — black power advocates believed the will and ability to retaliate was an essential survival skill for an abusive political and cultural environment.
In effecting survival, black power aspired to become a preservationary force for African-American values. Racism, it was hoped, would be fought through community solidarity and the creation of a new African-American cultural consciousness. As the decade progressed, African-Americans constructed an ever more complex series of definitions for black power.
Most often, black power manifested as a series of practical political and economic programs geared toward empowering African-Americans by any means necessary (Levine, 2005). This interpretation of black power was profoundly pragmatic. It acknowledged, perhaps more clearly than the moderate civil rights movement, that American society was motivated not by morality, but by power. Living at the sharp end of American realpolitik, militants argued that power was often seized, seldom shared. Accordingly, any attempt to better the African-American position needed to occur from a position of strength. Power was needed to escape the welfare state and to shape political proposals affecting the African-American community. In the iconic expression “all power to the people”, the Black Panther Party articulated many African-Americans’ desire to control their own destiny, politically and culturally.
In some respects, the growth of black militancy was a logical product of the civil rights movement’s efforts to achieve equality, dignity and freedom. However, black power sought more than guarantees of legal equality and renewed governmental attention to constitutional rights. Militants wanted control of the defining force of American society — power, both actual and psychological (Malcolm X, 1970). Thus, a “revolution of the mind” was considered by many militants to be a formative step in obtaining power (Walters, 1973, 26). Before African-America could hope to influence American economics or politics it first had to understand itself. Even allegedly universal concepts such as “truth” and “beauty” had to be recast before they were pressed into the service of militancy. Such attempts were purposely designed to challenge entrenched white definitions of African-Americans as ugly, ignorant, inferior, lazy and uncultured. Embarking on an intensive process of destroying shame in the African-American community, black power activists strove to turn a supposed drawback into a political advantage by provoking African-Americans into rejecting traditional American values and encouraging them to use their physical and cultural distinctiveness as weapons for liberation (Carmichael and Hamilton, 1967, 37-38; Rose, 1970, 25; Scheer, 1969, 51, 54-56; Lester, 1970, 100; Browne, 1968, 50).
Within this process a number of key groups dominated – the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the US organisation fronted by Maulana Karenga, the Nation of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad, and the loose collective known as the Black Arts Movement, guided by figures like Larry Neal and LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka]. These groups themselves occupied distinct points on a broader ideological spectrum. In the late sixties and early seventies, three basic categories of ideology were offered in relation to black power protest – assimilation, pluralism and nationalism. The first, assimilation, viewed group protest as a short-term strategy prefacing eventual integration into the cultural mainstream. Advocated by groups such as the National Black Power Conference, chaired by Dr. Nathan Wright, assimilationist rhetoric was seldom concerned with altering fundamental societal values or initiating profound institutional change (Wright, 1967). Instead, assimilationists primarily sought greater participation in existing social structures. The key obstacle to progress from this perspective was a lack of unity amongst African-Americans and a concomitant failure amongst whites to understand the benefits of equality for all involved. Accordingly, assimilationist campaigns concentrated on founding independent black organisations which could compete and prosper on an equal basis with established white concerns, firmly integrated within mainstream American society.
In comparison, pluralist doctrine argued that society was an amalgam of assorted ethnic groups competing for limited resources, a state of affairs acceptable so long as equal opportunities, privileges and respect were evenly accorded. Pluralists, like assimilationists, believed that a greater degree of racial solidarity was required for African-Americans to prosper within America. This approach epitomised the desire of the majority of black power adherents to construct a power base from which African-Americans could effectively represent their own social, political, cultural, spiritual and economic interests on an equal footing with whites. Centred on the contention that African-Americans possessed a culture distinct from that of mainstream America, many pluralist efforts sought to reconnect African-Americans with their history, myths and art in order to provide an effective framework for a common power base. Often, cultural forms not only laid the foundation for expressions of black power, but shaped the way in which these expressions developed and were prosecuted, influencing the basic praxis of the movement.
The emergence of a plethora of institutions pursuing the pluralist viewpoint eventually crystallised a basic tenet of the black power ethos – that equality for African-Americans could only be gained by a fundamental reconstruction of America’s economic and political framework. This viewpoint was most clearly articulated by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, in which the authors spoke of black power as “the coming together of black people to elect representatives to speak to their needs”. This “coming together” manifested in the ten point program of the Black Panther Party, with Carmichael assuming the position of Honorary Prime Minister for the Party in 1967 (Carmichael, 8).
At the far end of the spectrum lay nationalism, a position which the Panthers shifted towards as their organisation matured. The nationalist viewpoint borrowed rhetoric from the burgeoning Third World Liberation movement in order to present African-Americans as a colonised nation within America. The only possible solution, nationalists argued, was to throw off oppression by “any means necessary” and to construct an African-American society entirely separate from white America. Nationalists strove to preserve group values and cultural identity while keeping the deleterious ethos of the larger society at a safe distance, with the ultimate goal of constructing a new African-American society built on different and allegedly superior values to those of white America.
Several basic assumptions united these varying interpretations of black power. Almost all militant activists, whatever their ideological stance, advocated a greater sense of unity amongst African-Americans, to be cultivated by emphasising the positive aspects of African-American culture and the black experience. Equally, the vast majority of black power campaigners emphasised the failure of the traditional civil rights movement and its non-violent tactics. While many activists acknowledged the gains and good intentions of the non-violent movement, they believed that progress was sporadic at best, and too slow in coming. Freedom seemed to be dragging its heels.
Most activists also concurred that reinvigorating a moribund movement and instigating a new wave of African-American activism required the creation of organisations and institutions for the black community, controlled by the black community. Unlike previous mass protests, which had united whites and African-Americans in opposition to federal and state legislation, this new generation of activists targeted white racism as the key obstacle to African-American equality and demanded that the changing African-American freedom movement be led by blacks.
Most controversially, many of the viewpoints involved agreed that African-Americans had the right to self-defence and that violence would act as a deterrent to keep all parties involved peaceful. A focal point of the movement, the centrality of violence within the black power ethos ,was a double-edged sword. Despite the visceral appeal of violent retaliation to frustrated young activists, militant resistance was presented by black power adherents not as an end in itself, but as a precursor to African-American liberation, or as the Panthers preferred to say, of “survival pending revolution” (Hilliard, 2008).
Implementing black power was a complex endeavour, not least because the ideologies it encompassed were often contradictory. Carmichael’s Black Power was criticised at the time of its publication for the apparent tension between its pluralist aims and its rhetoric of colonialism. Carmichael’s rhetoric, and that adopted by the Panthers, demonstrated how a political black power group could practice variant ideologies at points throughout its life. For Carmichael, pluralist endeavours were necessary to create a strong African-American political and economic base as a precursor to eventual separation from the American mainstream, an explicitly nationalist goal.
Even nationalist interpretations of Black Power could be profoundly varied. Some encompassed the notion of emigration back to Africa popularised in the 1920s by Marcus Garvey. Others advocated the establishment of a separate nation or city-state federation for African-Americans within America. The majority demanded exclusively African-American control of all institutions relating to the black community, with decisions informed by a distinct black culture.
For some groups, such as Maulana Karenga’s US, the creation and reclamation of a distinct African-American culture was a goal in itself, outside of institutional reformation. Most organisations took a more holistic perspective, using culture as a weapon to pursue a political agenda. The most iconic black power group, the Black Panthers, presented African-Americans as a revolutionary vanguard who would rouse the slumbering masses into a proletarian challenge to capitalism. In general, nationalist black power sought to confront a country in which racial discrimination was systematically entrenched in the apparatus of American life. This racism, nationalists argued, reflected a wider discrimination against non-whites globally and was in turn reinforced and perpetuated by the American class system. Activists contended that white America resisted extending equality to African-Americans precisely because it would radically alter the fundamental basis of society.
The militant’s subsequent hybrid worldview can be summarised thus: white power, enshrined in the basic apparatus of American life, was an eternal impediment to African-America’s quality of life. To shatter and disperse this repressive hegemony African-Americans had to organise militantly and collectively strive toward group empowerment. This protracted, arduous endeavour encompassed all facets of African-American life — political, economic, psychological and cultural. The end result would be invaluable, as black Americans developed into an influential power bloc possessing genuine decision-making capability. The new African-America, it was argued, would be an entirely novel entity, host to a culturally vibrant people possessed of a transformative power with the potential to spread its rejuvenating influence to white America.
In the process, it was hoped African-Americans would develop a group consciousness and pride sufficient to support the militant struggle. This newly minted sense of black identity would act as a much needed social adhesive and steering force for the developing political black power movement. From this perspective, black power was a revolutionary cultural concept that sought fundamental changes in extant patterns of white American cultural hegemony. There was no upper limit on these aspirations, with militants desiring a revolution which would reshape the very fabric of the American value system and consequently redefine the nature of what it meant not only to be black in America, but also to be white.
“Civil Rights: The New Racism”, Time, 1 July 1966.
“Black Power: Politics of Frustration”, Newsweek, 11 July 1966.
Browne, Robert S. “The Case for Two Americas – One Black, One White”, New York Times Magazine, 11 August 1968.
Carmichael, Stokely. “What We Want”, The New York Review of Books 7, no.4 (22 September 1966)
.Carmichael, Stokely [Kwame Ture] and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. 1967. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Hilliard, David. Interview by the author, 27 August 2008.
Ladner, Joyce. “What “Black Power” Means to Negroes in Mississippi”, in Old Memories, New Moods: Americans from Africa, ed. Peter I. Rose, New York: Atherton, 1970.
Lester, Julius. Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon” Get Your Mama. London: Allison & Busby, 1970.
Levine, Bertram J. Resolving Racial Conflict: the Community Relations and Civil Rights, 1964-1989. London: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Neal, Larry. “Separate State”, unpublished.
Scheer, Robert ed. Eldridge Cleaver: Post-Prison Writings and Speeches. New York: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1969.
Sellers, Cleveland. The River of No Return: the Autobiography of a Black Militant and the Life and Death of SNCC. New York: Morrow, 1973.
Walters, Ronald. “African-American Nationalism: A Unifying Ideology”, Black World, October 1973.
Wright, Nathan Jr. Black Power and Urban Unrest: Creative Possibilities. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967.
X, Malcolm. By Any Means Necessary. New York: Pathfinder, 1970.
Citation: Torrubia, Rafael. "Black Power". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 07 July 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=17634, accessed 02 October 2022.]