Black Power is a political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African/Black descent. It is used in the movement among people of Black African descent throughout the world, though primarily by African Americans in the United States. The movement was prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s, emphasizing 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 social institutions and a self-sufficient economy. The earliest known usage of the term is found in a 1954 book by Richard Wright entitled Black Power. Although he did not “coin” the phrase, 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 popular 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, in a speech in Greenwood, Mississippi 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. It was a replacement of the “Freedom Now!” slogan of non-violent leader Martin Luther King. 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 said, “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 ideologies
Some Black Power adherents believed in Black autonomy, with a variety of tendencies such as black nationalism, and black separatism. 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 mostly white, they were not at war with all whites, merely the individuals in the existing power structure, who happened to mostly be 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.
See also: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
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
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.