Black Power is a political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies. It is used in the movement among people of Black African descent throughout the world, though primarily by African Americans 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 and advance black values.
"Black Power" expresses a range of political goals, from defense against racial oppression, to the establishment of separate social institutions and a self-sufficient economy (separatism). Not only did this "Black Power" movement encourage separatism, but it helped usher in black radical thoughts, and action against what was considered to be an elusive, yet visible higher power. The earliest known usage of the term is found in a 1954 book by Richard Wright titled Black Power. New York politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. 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."
Origin as a political slogan
The first use of the term "Black Power" as a social and political slogan was by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Willie Ricks (later known as Mukasa Dada), both organizers and spokespersons for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). On June 16, 1966, after the shooting of James Meredith during the March Against Fear, Stokely Carmichael said:
"This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain't going to jail no more! 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!"
Stokely Carmichael saw the concept of "Black Power" as a means of solidarity between individuals within the movement. With his conception and articulation of the word, he felt this movement was not just a movement for racial desegregation, but rather a movement to help combat America's crippling racism. He was quoted in saying: "For the last time, 'Black Power' means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs."
A range of ideology
Some Black Power adherents believe in Black autonomy, with a variety of tendencies such as black nationalism, and black separatism. Often Black Power advocates are open to use violence as a means of achieving their aims, but this openness to violence was nearly always coupled with community organizing work. 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.
Not all Black Power advocates were in favor of black nationalism and black separatism. While Stokely Carmichael and SNCC were in favor of black nationalism, organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense were not. Though they considered themselves to be at war with a power structure that was indeed all white, they were not at war with all Whites, merely the individuals in the existing power structure, who happened to be all white.
Bobby Seale, Chairman and Co-Founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, was outspoken about this. His stand was that the oppression of black people was more of a result of economic exploitation than anything innately racist. In his book Seize the Time, he states that "In our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small, minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. So let me emphasize again -- we believe our fight is a class struggle and not a race struggle."
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 [...] 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 Congress of Racial Equality (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.”
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 in the 1960s. Many members of SNCC, among them Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), were becoming critical of the nonviolent approach to confronting racism and inequality—articulated and practiced by Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP and other moderates—and rejected desegregation as a primary objective.
SNCC's membership was generally younger than that of the other "Big Five" civil rights organizations and became increasingly more militant and outspoken over time. From SNCC's point of view, racist people had no qualms about the use of violence against black people in the U.S. who would not "stay in their place," and "accommodationist" civil rights strategies had failed to secure sufficient concessions for black people. As a result, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, increasingly radical, more militant voices came to the fore to aggressively challenge white hegemony. Increasing numbers of black youth, particularly, rejected their elders' moderate path of cooperation, racial integration and assimilation. They rejected the notion of appealing to the public's conscience and religious creeds and took the tack articulated by another black activist more than a century before. Abolitionist Frederick 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.
Civil Rights leaders also believed in agitation, but most did not believe in physically violent retaliation.
During the March Against Fear, there was a division between those aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr. and those aligned with Carmichael, marked by their respective slogans, "Freedom Now" and "Black Power."
While King never endorsed the 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."
Although the concept remained imprecise and contested and the people who used the slogan ranged from businesspeople who used it to push black capitalism to revolutionaries who sought an end to capitalism, the idea of Black Power exerted a significant influence. It helped organize scores of community self-help groups and institutions that did not depend on Whites. It was used to force black studies programs at colleges, to mobilize black voters to elect black candidates, and to encourage greater racial pride and self-esteem.
Impact on Black Politics
Though the Black Power movement did not immediately remedy the political problems faced by African Americans in the 1960s and '70s, the movement did contribute to the development of black politics both directly and indirectly. As a contemporary of and successor to the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement created, what sociologist Herbert H. Haines refers to as a “positive radical flank effect” on political affairs of the 1960s. Though the nature of the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement is contested, Haines’ study of the relationship between black radicals and the mainstream civil rights movement indicates that Black Power generated a “crisis in American institutions which made the legislative agenda of ‘polite, realistic, and businesslike’ mainstream organizations” more appealing to politicians. In this way, it can be argued that the more strident and oppositional messages of the Black Power movement indirectly enhanced the bargaining position of more moderate activists. Black Power activists approached politics with vitality, variety, wit, and creativity that shaped the way future generations approached dealing with America’s societal problems (McCartney 188). These activists capitalized on the nation’s recent awareness of the political nature of oppression, a primary focus of the Civil Rights Movement, developing numerous political action caucuses and grass roots community associations to remedy the situation
The National Black Political Convention, held March 10–12, 1972, was a significant milestone in black politics of the Black Power era. Held in Gary, Indiana, a majority black city, the convention included a diverse group of black activists, although it completely excluded Whites. The convention was criticized for its racial exclusivity by Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, a group that supported integration. The delegates created a National Black Political Agenda with stated goals including the election of a proportionate number of black representatives to Congress, community control of schools, national health insurance, etc. Though the convention did not result in any direct policy, the convention advanced goals of the Black Power movement and left participants buoyed by a spirit of possibility and themes of unity and self-determination. A concluding note to the convention, addressing its supposed idealism, read: “At every critical moment of our struggle in America we have had to press relentlessly against the limits of the ‘realistic’ to create new realities for the life of our people. This is our challenge at Gary and beyond, for a new Black politics demands new vision, new hope and new definitions of the possible. Our time has come. These things are necessary. All things are possible.” Though such political activism may not have resulted in direct policy, they provided political models for later movements, advanced a pro-black political agenda, and brought sensitive issues to the forefront of American politics. In its confrontational and often oppositional nature, the Black Power movement, started a debate within the black community and America as a nation over issues of racial progress, citizenship, and democracy, namely “the nature of American society and the place of the African American in it.”. The continued intensity of debate over these same social and political issues is a tribute to the impact of the Black Power movement in arousing the political awareness and passions of citizens.
Impact on Other Movements
Though the aims of the Black Power movement were racially specific, much of the movement’s impact has been its influence on the development and strategies of later political and social movements. By igniting and sustaining debate on the nature of American society, the Black Power movement created what other multiracial and minority groups interpreted to be a viable template for the overall restructuring of society. By opening up discussion on issues of democracy and equality, the Black Power movement paved the way for a diverse plurality of social justice movements, including black feminism, environmental movements, affirmative action, and gay and lesbian rights. Central to these movements were the issues of identity politics and political correctness, features emerging from the Black Power movement Because the Black Power movement emphasized and explored a black identity, movement activists were forced to confront issues of gender, class and as well. Many activists in the Black Power movement became active in related movements. This is seen in the case of the “second wave” of women’s right activism, a movement supported and orchestrated to a certain degree by women working from within the coalition ranks of the Black Power movement. The boundaries between social movements became increasingly unclear at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s; where the Black Power movement ends and where these other social movements begin is often unclear. “It is pertinent to note that as the movement expanded the variables of gender, class, and only compounded issues of strategy and methodology in black protest thought.”
Impact on African American Identity
Due to the negative and militant reputation of such auxiliaries like that of the Black Panther Party, many people felt that this movement of "insurrection" would soon serve to cause discord, and disharmony through the entire U.S. Even Stokely Carmichael stated, "When you talk of Black Power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." Though Black Power at the most basic level refers to a political movement, the psychological and cultural messages of the Black Power movement, though less tangible, have had perhaps a longer lasting impact on American society than concrete political changes. Indeed, “fixation on the ‘political’ hinders appreciation of the movement’s cultural manifestations and unnecessarily obscures black culture’s role in promoting the psychological well being of the Afro-American people.”. States William L. Van Deburg, author of A New Day in Babylon, “movement leaders never were as successful in winning power for the people as they were in convincing people that they had sufficient power within themselves to escape ‘the prison of self-deprecation’” Primarily, the liberation and empowerment experienced by African Americans occurred in the psychological realm. The movement uplifted the black community as a whole by cultivating feelings of racial solidarity, often in opposition to the world of white Americans, a world that had physically and psychologically oppressed Blacks for generations. Through the movement, Blacks came to understand themselves and their culture by exploring and debating the question, “who are we?” in order to establish a unified and viable identity.
Throughout the Civil Rights Movement and black history a tension has existing between those wishing to minimize and maximize racial difference. W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. often attempted to deemphasize race in their quest for equality, while those advocating for separatism and colonization emphasized an extreme and irreconcilable difference between races. The Black Power movement largely achieved an equilibrium of “balanced and humane ethnocentrism.” The impact of the Black Power movement in generating valuable discussion about ethnic identity and black consciousness manifests itself in the relatively recent proliferation of academic fields such as American studies, Black Studies, and Africana studies in both national and international institutions. The respect and attention accorded to African Americans’ history and culture in both formal and informal settings today is largely a product of the movement for Black Power in the 1960s and '70s.
Black is beautiful
The cultivation of pride in the African American race was often summarized in the phrase "Black is Beautiful". Although the phrase remains connected to a historical context, the message remains contemporary. “I don’t think it’s ‘Black is beautiful’ anymore. It’s ‘I am beautiful and I’m black.’ It’s not the symbolic thing, the afro, power sign… That phase is over and it succeeded. My children feel better about themselves and they know that they’re black,” stated a respondent in Bob Blauner’s longitudinal oral history of U.S. race relations in 1986. The outward manifestations of an appreciation and celebration of blackness abound: black dolls, natural hair, black Santas, models and celebrities that were once rare and symbolic have become commonplace.
The "Black is beautiful" cultural movement aimed to dispel the notion that black people's natural features such as skin color, facial features and hair are inherently ugly. John Sweat Rock was the first to coin the phrase "Black is Beautiful", in the slavery era. The movement asked that men and women stop straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin. The prevailing idea in American culture was that black features are less attractive or desirable than white features. The movement is largely responsible for the popularity of the Afro. Most importantly, it gave a generation of African Americans the courage to feel good about who they are and how they look.
Impact on Arts and Culture
The Black Power movement produced artistic and cultural products that both embodied and generated pride in “blackness” and further defined an [|African American]] identity that remains contemporary. Black Power is often seen as a cultural revolution as much as a political revolution, with the goal of celebrating and emphasizing the distinctive group culture of African Americans to an American society that had previously been dominated by white artistic and cultural expressions. Black power utilized all available forms of folk, literary, and dramatic expression based in a common ancestral past to promote a message of self-actualization and cultural self-definition. The emphasis on a distinctive black culture during the Black Power movement publicized and legitimized a culture gap between Blacks and Whites that had previously been ignored and denigrated. More generally, in recognizing the legitimacy of another culture and challenging the idea of white cultural superiority, the Black Power movement paved the way for the celebration of multiculturalism in America today.
The cultural concept of “soul” was fundamental to the image of African American culture embodied by the Black Power movement. Soul, a type of “in-group cultural cachet,” was closely tied to black America’s need for individual and group self-identification. A central expression of the “soulfulness” of the Black Power generation was a cultivation of aloofness and detachment, the creation of an “aura or emotional invulnerability,” a persona that challenged their position of relative powerlessness in greater society. The nonverbal expressions of this attitude, including everything from posture to handshakes, were developed as a counterpoint to the rigid, “up-tight” mannerisms of white people. Though the iconic symbol of black power, the arms raised with biceps flexed and clenched fists, is temporally specific, variants of the multitude of handshakes, or “giving and getting skin,” in the 1960s and 70s as a mark of communal solidarity continue to exist as a part of black culture. Clothing style also became an expression of Black Power in the 1960s and '70s. Though many of the popular trends of the movement remained confined to the decade, the movement redefined standards of beauty that were historically influenced by Whites and instead celebrated a natural “blackness.” As Stokely Carmichael said in 1966, “We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, thick lip and nappy hair is us and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.” “Natural” hair styles, such as the Afro, became a socially acceptable tribute to group unity and a highly visible celebration of black heritage. Though the same social messages may no longer consciously influence individual hair or clothing styles in today’s society, the Black Power movement was influential in diversifying standards of beauty and aesthetic choices. The Black Power movement raised the idea of a black aesthetic that revealed the worth and beauty of all black people.
In developing a powerful identity from the most elemental aspects of African American folk life, the Black Power movement generated attention to the concept of “soul food,” a fresh, authentic, and natural style of cooking that originated in Africa. The flavor and solid nourishment of the food was credited with sustaining African Americans through centuries of oppression in America and became an important aid in nurturing contemporary racial pride. Black Power advocates used the concept of “soul food” to further distinguish between white and black culture; though the basic elements of soul food were not specific to African American food, Blacks believed in the distinctive quality, if not superiority, of foods prepared by Blacks. No longer racially specific, traditional “soul foods” such as yams, collard greens, and deep-fried chicken continue to hold a place in contemporary culinary life.
Black Arts Movement
The Black Arts Movement or BAM, founded in Harlem by writer and activist Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoy Jones) can be seen as the artistic branch of the Black Power movement. This movement inspired black people to establish ownership of publishing houses, magazines, journals and art institutions. Other well-known writers who were involved with this movement included Nikki Giovanni; Don L. Lee, later known as Haki Madhubuti; Sonia Sanchez; Maya Angelou; Dudley Randall; Sterling Plumpp; Larry Neal; Ted Joans; Ahmos Zu-Bolton; and Etheridge Knight. Several black-owned publishing houses and publications sprang from the BAM, including Madhubuti's Third World Press, Broadside Press, Zu-Bolton's Energy Black South Press, and the periodicals Callaloo and Yardbird Reader. Although not strictly involved with the Movement, other notable African American writers such as novelists Ishmael Reed and Toni Morrison and poet Gwendolyn Brooks can be considered to share some of its artistic and thematic concerns.
BAM sought “to link, in a highly conscious manner, art and politics in order to assist in the liberation of black people”, and produced an increase in the quantity and visibility of African American artistic production. Though many elements of the Black Arts movement are separate from the Black Power movement, many goals, themes, and activists overlapped. Literature, drama, and music of Blacks “served as an oppositional and defensive mechanism through which creative artists could confirm their identity while articulating their own unique impressions of social reality.” In addition to acting as highly visible and unifying representations of “blackness,” the artistic products of the Black Power movement also utilized themes of black empowerment and liberation. For instance, black recording artists not only transmitted messages of racial unity through their music, they also became significant role models for a younger generation of African Americans. Updated protest songs not only bemoaned oppression and societal wrongs, but utilized adversity as a reference point and tool to lead others to activism. Some Black Power era artists conducted brief mini-courses in the techniques of empowerment. In the tradition of cultural nationalists, these artists taught that in order to alter social conditions, Blacks first had to change the way they viewed themselves; they had to break free of white norms and strive to be more natural, a common theme of African American art and music. Musicians such as the Temptations sang lyrics such as “I have one single desire, just like you / So move over, son, ‘cause I’m comin’ through” in their song “Message From a Black Man,” they expressed the revolutionary sentiments of the Black Power movement.
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.
By breaking into a field typically reserved for white Americans, artists of the Black Power era expanded opportunities for current African Americans. “Today’s writers and performers,” writes William L. Van Deburg, “recognize that they owe a great deal to Black Power’s explosion of cultural orthodoxy”.