The fight for Black America

Characterising Black Power as the civil rights movement's 'evil twin' masks its considerable achievements over the past 50 years, argues Peter Ling...

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-metre run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. They refuse to recognise the American flag and national anthem. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

By the time two African American sprinters raised their black gloved fists in salute from the medal rostrum at the 1968 Olympics, Black Power had established itself as the clarion call of black America. From the beginning it had been a movement shaped by the media, and arguably, systematically misrepresented. Cameras had captured the moment when lone protester James Meredith was felled by a shotgun blast early in his ‘March Against Fear’ along the highways of Mississippi in June 1966. As Meredith lay in hospital, national civil rights leaders, and even more journalists, had then continued the march, despite threats. Later that month, after being released by local police, the youngest leader, Stokely Carmichael, addressed a crowd of marchers near Greenwood. Visibly angry, he declared that: “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whupping us is to take over. We been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothin.”

Encouraged by fellow Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) members, the crowd responded to Stokely’s call, “What do we want?”, with the words, “Black Power!” Television transmitted the angry rally to the nation in the same way that it had earlier captured Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ oration. But, as many were confronted by the term ‘Black Power’ for the first time, the emotions elicited among white viewers were very different, drawing less upon their ideals than on their nightmares.

Fifty years later, schoolchildren around the world know King’s speech yet, arguably, Carmichael’s call for Black Power resonates more powerfully for contemporary black Americans. Even with Obama in the White House, the power to protect and enhance black lives seems elusive. Nevertheless, at a commemorative event on 17 June, the anniversary of Carmichael’s speech, the president did not speak. In fact, he tends to ignore the phrase – in the eyes of some, this is because the continuing demand for Black Power undercuts his own status as a symbol of African American empowerment.

Carmichael saw Black Power as a basis for unity, yet from the outset, with media assistance, it strengthened division. When the civil rights leaders gathered to continue the Meredith March, Carmichael clashed with the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Roy Wilkins, who promptly disassociated his organisation from the campaign. Wilkins was sharply critical about the ‘Black Power’ slogan later that summer, describing it as “the father of hatred and the mother of violence”. This bolstered the media’s framing of Black Power as the unruly and self-destructive successor of the civil rights movement. Rapidly, a stereotype emerged that presented Black Power activists as intrinsically violent and anti-white; the complete opposite (supposedly) of the earlier, nonviolent and integrationist movement. As historian Peniel Joseph puts it, Black Power was depicted, even by scholars, as the civil rights movement’s “evil twin”.

Events sharpened the caricature. The summer of 1966 saw the urban uprising that had shaken Los Angeles in 1965 spread to Chicago. In Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and focused its efforts on policing the police with armed patrols. Newspapers and TV channels brought images of looted stores, burning cars and leather-jacketed, black-bereted militants into white homes across the nation, sparking fears of a race war. The American right, which had seemed doomed after the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson over its standard-bearer Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964, rebounded. Ronald Reagan won the California governorship and the mid-term Congressional elections saw liberal losses. Election pundits and civil rights moderates were quick to blame black militancy for the conservative turn.

The new mood affected everything from politics to hairstyles. When an internal government report on the black family, written by Daniel P Moynihan, was leaked, its key finding – that African American poverty was linked to high levels of single-parent, female-headed households – was denounced as a racist attempt to blame the victim.

As the natural or Afro look became one expression of a ‘Black is beautiful’ movement, sales of hair straightening products plummeted. When white writer William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, black intellectuals scorned the very idea that a white man could imagine what it was like to be a black insurrectionist (and Styron’s negative portrayal of Turner fuelled their outrage).

In April 1967 Dr King reasserted his own radicalism by denouncing US involvement in Vietnam. When Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam later that month, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”, he was stripped of his world heavyweight title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced initially to five years in prison with a $10,000 fine. A month later, the Panthers increased their notoriety by staging an armed protest at the California state-house which was set to consider outlawing the open carrying of firearms, a key facet of the Panthers’ programme. That summer, Newark and Detroit were wracked by the most violent ghetto disturbances yet, and in October a shoot-out involving Panther leader Huey Newton left a white police officer dead and Newton indicted for murder.

The media’s association of Black Power with violence and anti-white feeling intensified, providing the rationale for a wide-ranging programme of state repression, overseen by the FBI in collaboration with local police. Tactics included infiltrating Black Power groups to foment internal divisions and encourage actions likely to expose groups to prosecution. In 1969, Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot dead during a police raid, in an incident that many regard as a political assassination. In 1970, the FBI issued wanted posters for Angela Davis as an accessory to an attempted courtroom escape that left a judge dead. She was the third woman to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and the first to sport an Afro. Reflecting on the legacy of her Black Power activism, Davis has lamented that she wanted a revolution but ended up being treated as a fashion statement.

Despite the fact that armed violence was more often used against Black Power groups than by them, the media consensus was that they were violent and threatening. Black Power leaders frequently extolled the merits of armed struggle, quoting Mao’s dictum that “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, and embraced the anti-colonial rhetoric of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist who worked with the Algerian liberation movement and argued that armed resistance was vital since fighting back was mentally liberating. Further lurid headlines grew from the fact that Black Power groups recruited people with troubled pasts: former convicts and gang members. Panther minister of information Eldridge Cleaver confessed he was a rapist; even describing his attacks on white women as “an insurrectionary act.” The shocking confession was used against the Panthers, and the FBI exploited past gang ties and drug addiction in its campaign.

Black Power also fed the fears of communist subversion that had generated the McCarthyite purges in the 1950s. To white Americans, faced with the nightly news of more combat deaths in Vietnam, black militants were so anti-American as to be un-American. Black cultural nationalism expressed in African dress or the adoption of Swahili names and greetings bemused them. In petitions to the UN, the Republic of New Africa group renewed calls for the establishment of an African American homeland in the Cotton Belt of the South, partly as reparations for slavery. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers grew from the longstanding presence of communist organisers within the labour movement. By the late 1960s, in unions like the United Auto Workers, African Americans were demanding greater militancy in shop-floor disputes rather than just accepting annual contract negotiations that tended to favour white workers. In each case, Black Power confirmed conservative fears and drove a wedge between black militancy and white liberals.

In his co-authored book, Black Power, Carmichael urged closing ranks and especially exploiting the political advantages of bloc voting wherever African Americans were the majority. As major cities like Chicago and Detroit became increasingly African American, black voters could elect black councillors and even black mayors. Carmichael also argued that coalitions with white people needed to be entered provisionally in a calculated fashion – in other words, only as long as they respected black priorities. He warned that black politicians needed to be kept close to the people lest they prioritise their self-interest. In practice, many African American politicians, from Tom Bradley in his 1973 race to become mayor of Los Angeles to Barack Obama in his 2008 bid to be president, calculated that they had the black vote and focused instead on reaching out to the white electorate. Given the electoral victories achieved by such pragmatists, Black Power advocates were perceived as misguided by the 1980s, as an expanded African American middle class sought to protect itself from the cutbacks of the Reagan years.

The negative judgment on Black Power was well-entrenched in the history books by the time Ronald Reagan signed the law establishing the Martin Luther King national holiday in 1983. Scholars argued that the restoration of black voters due to the Voting Rights Act had been offset by the switch of southern white voters from Democrat to increasingly conservative Republican. They also contended that the election of black mayors in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere had been undermined by the white flight that destroyed the metropolitan tax base amid a massive relocation of jobs and homes that amounted to the de facto re-segregation of America. Black Power thus helped to create the gulf between an underclass that live in broken communities beset by drugs and gang wars and a middle-class America that shops online and watches cable by the pool, sometimes sampling the gritty awfulness of ghetto life via hip-hop videos and crime drama.

In the last two decades, however, the scholarship has changed and offers a more nuanced portrait in which Black Power traits were part of the classic civil rights movement, not its antithesis. Figures like Robert Williams of Monroe, North Carolina, who responded to the growing white segregationist harassment of the late 1950s by organising armed resistance, were rediscovered. Alongside Williams’ story, there emerged a broader acknowledgement that in the rural South, armed self-defence was the norm – nonviolence coexisted with armed resistance. Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers remember being hosted in homes where adults stood guard nightly with a shotgun on the porch. At the same time, scholars questioned the narrow focus on the South that meant that the struggles in northern cities against police brutality, job and housing discrimination, and acute racial inequality had been largely ignored.

In her 2004 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall advocated a “long civil rights movement” to counter the trend to picture the movement as a finished story in which a heroic Martin Luther King confronted America nonviolently with its sins and the nation recanted, allowing Americans to move on as a post-racial nation. This lie, she argued, was implicit in public memory that celebrated the removal of segregation signs in the South but ignored the myriad injustices that the movement had continued to address nationally. The “long civil rights movement” was about earlier phases of the struggle in the 1930s and 1940s, but also about later campaigns. As part of this, the Black Panther Party has been re-examined and reappraised. By 1970 it had nearly 5,000 members across more than 20 states and its chapters were strongest where they strove to address local needs in practical ways. The ‘free breakfast’ programme typified this approach, providing a nourishing morning meal to 20,000 children weekly. Similarly, the Panther community health clinics pioneered screening for sickle cell anaemia.

As repression intensified, the party’s survival rested on its ties to local people, and eventually these ties enabled some Panthers to become elected officials. The most conspicuous example is Illinois congressman Bobby Rush, whose support among local black residents was so strong by 2000 that he was able to resist a challenge to his re-election by political newcomer Barack Obama.

It has been argued too that cultural victories are as important as the legislative victories of the civil rights movement. The place of African American culture in American culture changed not because of desegregation and voting rights, but because Black Power articulated a racial pride and supported an artistic renaissance that compelled white cultural institutions – from universities to television stations – to accept that African Americans should be treated with dignity and on their own terms. What conservatives still decry as political correctness in racial matters is actually a measure of how far white America has come to accept the reality of Black Power. From supreme court justices to celebrity talk show hosts, African Americans have more cultural power today because of the anger of Black Power.

Advertisement

Peter Ling is professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham and the author of Martin Luther King Jr (Routledge, 2015).