The Black Power movement grew out of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT that had steadily gained momentum through the 1950s and 1960s. Although not a formal movement, the Black Power movement marked a turning point in black-white relations in the United States and also in how blacks saw themselves. The movement was hailed by some as a positive and proactive force aimed at helping blacks achieve full equality with whites, but it was reviled by others as a militant, sometimes violent faction whose primary goal was to drive a wedge between whites and blacks. In truth, the Black Power movement was a complex event that took place at a time when society and culture was being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the SOUTHERN CHRISTIAN LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE (SCLC) worked with blacks and whites to create a desegregated society and eliminate RACIAL DISCRIMINATION. Their efforts generated positive responses from a broad spectrum of people across the country. Rev. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., who headed the SCLC, made significant headway with his adherence to nonviolent tactics. In 1964, President LYNDON B. JOHNSON signed the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT and a year later he signed the VOTING RIGHTS ACT.
CIVIL RIGHTS legislation was an earnest and effective step toward eliminating inequality between blacks and whites. Even with the obvious progress, however, the reality was that prejudice could not be legislated away. Blacks still faced lower wages than whites, higher crime rates in their neighborhoods, and unspoken but palpable racial discrimination. Young blacks in particular saw the civil rights movement as too mainstream to generate real social change. What they wanted was something that would accelerate the process and give blacks the same opportunities as whites, not just socially but also economically and politically. Perhaps more important, they felt that the civil rights movement was based more on white perceptions of civil rights than black perceptions.
Not all blacks had been equally impressed with the civil rights movement. MALCOLM X and the NATION OF ISLAM, for example, felt that racial self-determination was a critical and neglected element of true equality. By the mid-1960s, dissatisfaction with the pace of change was growing among blacks. The term "black power" had been around since the 1950s, but it was STOKELY CARMICHAEL, head of the STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE (SNCC), who popularized the term in 1966.
Carmichael led a push to transform SNCC from a multiracial community activist organization into an all-black social change organization. Late in 1966, two young men, HUEY NEWTON and BOBBY SEALE, formed the BLACK PANTHER PARTY FOR SELF-DEFENSE (BPP), initially as a group to track incidents of police violence. Within a short time groups such as SNCC and BPP gained momentum, and by the late 1960s the Black Power movement had made a definite mark on American culture and society.
The Black Power movement instilled a sense of racial pride and self-esteem in blacks. Blacks were told that it was up to them to improve their lives. Black Power advocates encouraged blacks to form or join all-black political parties that could provide a formidable power base and offer a foundation for real socioeconomic progress. For years, the movement's leaders said, blacks had been trying to aspire to white ideals of what they should be. Now it was time for blacks to set their own agenda, putting their needs and aspirations first. An early step, in fact, was the replacement of the word "Negro" (a word associated with the years of SLAVERY) with "black."
The movement generated a number of positive developments. Probably the most noteworthy of these was its influence on black culture. For the first time, blacks in the United States were encouraged to acknowledge their African heritage. COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES established black studies programs and black studies departments. Blacks who had grown up believing that they were descended from a backwards people now found out that African culture was as rich and diverse as any other, and they were encouraged to take pride in that heritage. The Black Arts movement, seen by some as connected to the Black Power movement flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Young black poets, authors, and visual artists found their voices and shared those voices with others. Unlike earlier black arts movements such as the Harlem Renaissance, the new movement primarily sought out a black audience.
The same spirit of racial unity and pride that made the Black Power movement so dynamic also made it problematic—and to some, dangerous. Many whites, and a number of blacks, saw the movement as a black separatist organization bent on segregating blacks and whites and undoing the important work of the civil rights movement. There is no question that Black Power advocates had valid and pressing concerns. Blacks were still victims of racism, whether they were being charged a higher rate for a mortgage, getting paid less than a white coworker doing the same work, or facing violence at the hands of white racists. But the solutions that some Black Power leaders advocated seemed only to create new problems. Some, for example, suggested that blacks receive paramilitary training and carry guns to protect themselves. Though these individuals insisted this device was solely a means of SELF-DEFENSE and not a call to violence, it was still unnerving to think of armed civilians walking the streets.
Also, because the Black Power movement was never a formally organized movement, it had no central leadership, which meant that different organizations with divergent agendas often could not agree on the best course of action. The more radical groups accused the more mainstream groups of capitulating to whites, and the more mainstream accused the more radical of becoming too ready to use violence. By the 1970s, most of the formal organizations that had come into prominence with the Black Power movement, such as the SNCC and the Black Panthers, had all but disappeared.
The Black Power movement did not succeed in getting blacks to break away from white society and create a separate society. Nor did it help end discrimination or racism. It did, however, help provide some of the elements that were ultimately necessary for blacks and whites to gain a fuller understanding of each other.
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. 1967. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage Books.
Cross, Theorore. 1984. The Black Power Imperative. New York: Faulkner.
Van Deburg, William, L. 1992. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
The Black Power Movement was a new way of fighting for Civil Rights in the 60’s. Many African Americans were tired of ineffective, peaceful protests so they turned to violence. There were multiple groups and leaders involved with this movement such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. The Black Power Movement was a battle for immediate change in American society that involved the FBI and the Police. The media made it look like a danger to innocent people, while others viewed it as a progressive movement for African American culture. Though it was a violent and dangerous movement, it was necessary for African Americans to gain equality in America.
The Black Power Movement was a form of protesting that had not yet been seen before in the Civil Rights Movement. The term “Black Power” was introduced in 1966, in a speech by Stokely Carmichael, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC was an organization that would help African American students partake in the Civil Rights movement through peaceful activities. Carmichael grew tired of the slow rate of civil rights’ progression, which he made clear in his speeches. He once said in a speech, “Some negroes have been walking down dream street talking about sitting next to white people. That does not begin to solve the problem… we were never fighting for the right to integrate, we were fighting against white supremacy.” Carmichael’s enthusiasm towards a new type of movement brought many young African Americans into the picture. African Americans soon began to take pride in their heritage and create their own type of style. Many grew out their hair into “afros” other than previously copying the white mans’ conk style of hair. They also began to wear traditional African dashikis and blue jeans. The new African American style gave them a sense of individuality and pride. The rise of the Black Power movement showed the people of America that African Americans were strong individuals that were willing to fight for their liberties. The motivation for this type of movement was greatly influenced by Malcolm X.
Malcolm X’s actions pioneered the ideas and morals of the Black Power Movement. He spent his early years running from white supremacists with his family. His father was a civil rights activist as well as a Baptist minister. His home in Michigan was burned down and his father was found dead on the local train tracks. These events of his childhood gave him a sense of anger towards white people. Though early life was tough, he was always well educated. He graduated at the top of his class in middle school, but dropped out when his teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger”. He began to run drugs, prostitutes, and gambling rings to make money. When Malcolm X was arrested for petty crimes, he joined the nation of Islam in prison, where he went on to become a leader in their church. When Malcolm X was released, he was angry at the white oppressors in America. He started an Islamic gang that would help protect his fellow African Americans against police brutality. His ability to overcome a rough life and become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement was inspiring to many. Malcolm X’s dignity, self-respect, and ability to fight for his beliefs were carried on through the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party was a national organization that promoted Black Power. It was founded by two very intelligent college graduates by the names of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The fact that they were well educated African Americans with college degrees made them admirable to their followers. They required members to read specific books in order to join the group. They practiced a ten point program that stated their desires which included the release of wrongly tried African American prisoners, Housing for the black community, employment for African Americans, and black people being exempt from military service. The program seems reasonable today but in the 60’s many people thought it was never going to happen. The organization was not afraid to kill police officers or any others who were oppressing African Americans. Though they were violent, much of their proceeds went towards building schools, art institutions, dance programs, houses, and many other utilities for African American communities. The Black Panther Party created many opportunities for their people that they would not have received otherwise. Though The Party seemed like a violent group to many, it was a well-organized group that was very beneficial for African Americans throughout the nation.
The Black Panther Party was constantly being attacked by the FBI and the Police. The FBI would threaten the Panthers and try to force them to talk. They would also forge letters and send them to high ranking members of the party that were full of fake information. The FBI technically had no right to do what they did but they would cover up their actions with lies and scandals. The day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death the FBI kicked in the door on a Black Panther Party meeting, killing four leaders of the party. The attack was unwarranted and they had absolutely no right to kill the four men. Also, when the FBI was called in to investigate multiple homicides of African Americans they would not release the truth of the death by calling them “accidents” or “untraceable”. The police force was brutal on the party. There was even an instance of the LAPD raiding one of the Los Angeles Panther’s child care center. Officers held the children at gunpoint and made them watch the adults get beat mercilessly by the policemen. The Black Panther Party had difficulties running their operations with these unwarranted attacks. The FBI and the Police were corrupt and should have been punished for their actions. However, they were mostly not African Americans, so the United States Government did not even bat an eye.
The Media viewed the Black Power movement as a group of thugs causing chaos. With song titles like, “Violence is as American as Cherry Pie,” made people feel threatened by the African American community. The movement also had support from the Viet Kong during the “Free Huey” Campaign. When Huey Newton was jailed, the Viet Kong offered to release prisoners of war for the release of Newton. When Americans realized that the Black Panther Party was supported by the communist government that we were currently in a war with made the group look dangerous. One leader of the movement, Gordon Parks, was frustrated with the media and said, “I’ve given up trying to explain it. The whites never really listen when I do anyway” For many members of the Black Power Movement, it was very difficult to voice their opinion due to the negative influence of the media. The media constantly made Black Power look like a group of violent people, which made the movement look bad in the eyes of many citizens.
The practices of the Black Power Movement were terrifying to many Americans. They took the term “Black Power” and compared it to “White Power” making it look as if the African Americans were going to murder innocent white people. Many African Americans began to carry weapons visibly in public to show their strength. The combination of the two made it seem as if African Americans were fighting to kill, not for their rights. Also, the newly found pride that many African Americans had discovered was intimidating to many white people, mainly because they had never seen it before. As a result, the FBI considered the Black Panther Party their number one threat to American Security. The Black Panther Party was only taking extreme actions because they needed a huge change, yet many Americans were skeptical about Black Power and did not want to support it because of their fears of African American violence.
The Black Power Movement an entirely different take on the battle for civil rights. Many African Americans were done with the slow paced peaceful protests, and began to fight for a faster change in society. The Black Panther Party and Malcolm X impacted the movement the greatest. Even though FBI and Police officers would always try and shut them down. The media made the movement look bad in the eyes of many, yet some still believe it was for the greater good. Even though it was a dangerous protest, it was the only way for many African Americans to make a statement in the United States society.