America in 1960s
14 December 2017
Delvin M Dinkins
The Evolution of Black Power
With America reveling in its triumph over the evils of racial violence, discrimination, and marginalization, African Americans realized that many of the so-called triumphs were purely symbolic in nature. African-Americans were forced to recognize the absurdity of mythology that said that the country’s laws ensuring the equality would lead to immediate tangible results. After all, systems that have lasted for centuries rarely are completely dismantled overnight, even if they are legally challenged. After understanding that freedom and impartiality for everyone was impractical in the near-future, blacks continued to challenge the lasting obstacles that permeated American establishments. The 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts, largely hailed as victories by the old guard of the civil rights movement, were unable to generate racial equality. While these acts were written in law, they were not applied in practice. As a result, some within the civil rights movement pursued other options. In stark resistance to mainstream thought, the growth of other approaches and strategies, especially the Separatist and Nationalist factions, marked the revolution of the civil rights movement into a new type of action.
Oppression of African-American progress has been well documented throughout American history. From antebellum slavery to Jim Crow, African-Americans were consistently viewed as second class citizens at best. During antebellum slavery, African Americans were explicitly viewed as chattel. This system had been normalized over three centuries before the civil rights movement. For centuries, African-Americans consistently planned to overturn the system that marginalized them. From chattel slavery to Jim Crow society, African-Americans have always squabbled over such strategies. Harriet Tubman was known for forcibly enticing potentially reluctant slaves to cooperate with her during her missions. Booker T Washington, on the other hand, is remembered for his more covert attempts to influence white society during his time. The great American experiment was founded on the exploitation of African-Americans and the country was among the few countries to not to explicitly pursue a set of laws aimed at curbing discrimination towards the previously maltreated.
Though Founding Father Thomas Jefferson famous penned, “all men were created equal”, it took over three centuries until those with African ancestry were recognized as Americans, or even humans.1954 saw the Supreme Court of The United States decide the tenet of “separate but equal” that was established by Plessy v Ferguson was intrinsically unequal. On December 5, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks sparked the massive Montgomery Bus Boycott when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. The Civil Rights Movement gained traction following the massive boycott because they were able to push for specific policies aimed at curbing segregation. Organized groups like the SCLC were instrumental in pushing these policies from a Christian, moralist perspective. The 1963 March on Washington was a cultural demonstration that garnered worldwide attention. Even then, the March on Washington was met with significant resistance.1
The civil rights movement was categorized as a “second American Revolution” by scholars because it imbedded the idea of inequality in the American mind. Among the most common types of protest of the early civil rights movement was non-violent sit-ins, often at lunch counters. These sit-ins were most prominent in Nashville and Greensboro. Both cities saw troves of students defying the racists that demanded they leave their lunch counters. Both cities were pressured to at least symbolically, enact legislative changes to their city policies. Diane Nash, who participated in the Nashville sit-ins, reflected on these changes, saying “I have a lot of respect for the way he responded. He didn’t have to respond how he did. That was the turning point. That day was very important.”2 SNCC, which Diane Nash was a member of, organized these sit-ins and would eventually give way to the Black Power movement that would develop in the coming years.
The Nashville and Greensboro sit-ins aided in the passing of national legislation. The 1964 Civil Rights Act barred public discrimination and added various employment provisions. The more extensive Voting Rights Act, passed a year later, banned literacy tests and poll taxes. Combined, these two laws gave African-Americans, at least in theory, the rights they were guaranteed as Americans but were denied of due to Jim Crow laws.
Measurable progress was pivotal to showing the black community that passive non-violence was effective. This progress, while not yet on an economic level, would confirm that sit-ins and marches were the optimal strategy for enacting change in America. If marches and sit-ins were not successful, new strategies had to be explored. Martin Luther King saw Freedom Rider songs, spanning from black hymns to jazz, as “proof of the cultural significance of the civil rights movement.”3
After initial excitement about the civil rights legislation President Lyndon Baines Johnson passed at the behest of black leaders waned, the once subdued forewarnings of moderates and radicals within the movement came to light.4 These figures informed the black community that progress was an illusion. Politicians didn’t become enlightened on racial issues overnight. They were attempting to appease African Americans while making feeble attempts to challenge the status quo. Consequently, the shared frustration paved the way for multicultural politics in America. In retrospect, a give-and-take correlation existed between the upsurge in black frustration at gradualism and their openness to an increasing radical movement, the Black Power Movement.
The willingness to be militant at times would serve as the catalyst for the new movement. One of the new groups sprung from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC’s leader and founder, Stokely Carmichael, came to realize that African-Americans need a new rallying cry. Carmichael settled on the phrase “Black Power”, a saying first attributed from Frederick Douglass.5 Douglass, an abolitionist and orator pleaded with fellow abolitionists to use “black political power” in order to dismantle injustice.
It was at the “March against Fear” demonstration where observers heard Stokley Carmichael use the term “Black Power”. His speech called for African-Americans to find their own economic and political independence. He articulated the need for African-Americans to patronize their own businesses and not rely on whites in order to be successful. This new, commanding slogan was largely seen as a departure from perceived unconditional nonviolence advocated by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. or Roy Wilkins.6 King was diametrically opposed to the idea “Black Power” because he believed that the movement encouraged open hostility to the media and greater society. King did however believe that African-Americans should become more politically active. King also distanced himself from the “Black Power” movement because he believed the civil rights movement had an obligation to accommodate those outside of black society who were willing to listen and push for policy.
Logistically employed as a call to action for Black America, insurgent civil rights crowds transformed Black Power into an ideological movement. This was achieved through the publication of magazine articles, newspaper articles, and memoirs that were meant to inspire those who were unsure about the validity of the movement. The Black Power movement countered the narrative that the more radical members within the civil rights were incapable of forming their distinct movement. In his 1967 essay on Black Power, Stokely Carmichael, leader of SNCC defines imagined Black Power as an uncompromising fight for resistance. He wrote that he wanted “to inspire a new consciousness among blacks that would make it possible for us to continue toward those solutions and those answers”.7 Scholar Julius Lester contended that “Black awareness was a crucial part of speaking for ourselves”.8
The notion that African-Americans could push for policy independently was foreign to many. Most expected white society to play a pivotal role in any social progress. The “Black Power” movement did not need moderates in order for it to be successful and appealing. The movement gained further traction as riots spread throughout the country. The riots spread the increasing radicalism and showed a complete rejection of the non-violent doctrine that presided over the movement for so many years. Popular figure James Meredith was even shunned. A defiant Stokely Carmichael grew tired of his continuous prison sentences.9 The black fist became a popular symbol to express discontent. In Mexico City, 1968, American Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists during the national anthem. It was powerful for the world to see two Olympians express discontent with the nation that they were representing, while their national anthem was playing.
The Nation of Islam was another radical group that departed from the moderate wing of the civil rights movement. Founded by Wallace Mohammed, the Nation of Islam, advocated for black liberation through the lens of Islam. Mohammed declared himself a prince of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Ethnically androgynous, Mohammed claimed his sole purpose on earth was to liberate African-Americans from the torment of white America. He believed that African-Americans would be best served if they were able to reject the “poisoning “that was instilled by white society”. He subsequently created a 10-point platform for black Americans. The platform called for protection of women, complete rejection of capitalist materialism, and a creation of a parallel black economy.10
The platform, like so many other “Black Power” manifestos, did not actively seek acceptance from white society. Elijah Muhammad, another Nation of Islam leader, didn’t want African-Americans to associate with white Americans. In his view, Caucasians were an oppressive group that would never enshrine equality in American life. Elijah Muhammad sought a black nation that would exist within America. In preparation, he told black Muslims to anticipate a backlash from the dominant society. He encouraged his followers to retaliate to the backlash. His understudy, Malcolm X eventually stole the spotlight from him.11 Malcolm X’s charisma drew followers that Muhammad was never able to draw. This angered Muhammad, who was largely self-serving. Malcolm X was motivated by vengeance towards white supremacists. He, like Muhammad, dismissed the idea that non-violence was the most effective solution to combating white supremacy. He believed that equality could be achieved “by ballots or bullets”. This language shocked the American conscious. Clarifying, Malcolm X made it clear that he was against white supremacy and not white people in general. Racists used his language to dissuade moderates from joining his movement. His movement was portrayed as exclusive rather than inclusive.12
When Southern black leaders visited Malcolm X and expressed their grave concerns with the open racism they faced in the south, X suggested that they voice their concerns internationally. Racial justice would partly be achieved due to pressure that the United States faced. The United States, a supposed champion of democracy that had aided in the demise of Nazi Germany twenty years earlier, would be lambasted as hypocritical if matters did not improve. He pointed out that racism was spreading to the North and was not simply confined to the South.13
When the “Black Power” mantra started to spread during the 1960s, it had a polarizing effect. Civil rights activists were rallied, white moderates were alienated, and white reactionaries were further mobilized. Gradualists within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) accepted Black Power as a force against American-American disenfranchisement and police violence that they encountered while protesting across America. Originally just a mantra, the Black Power movement gave way to organized groups like the Black Panthers.
The Black Panthers were the most renowned society to emerge out of the Black Power Movement. Due to the movement’s name, it was largely considered to be a movement based on racial grievances. Its critiques of broader structures within American society were often ignored. In reality, the Black Panthers were a movement that challenged racial as well as class norms. Beginning as an extension of the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party began to adopt a platform based on class issues.
Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, Newton was the driving force behind the conceptualization of the Party’s theories and ideology.14 Newton found the Party as a young man at a time when he was challenging society. Drawing from other radicals during his time, Newton was constantly open to new solutions. Due to Newton’s evolving ideology, the Black Panther Party transformed multiple times over the years.
Proclaiming blackness via the Black Power movement allowed African Americans to have sense of shared identity. African-Americans were able to accept themselves unconditionally, idealizing blackness with positive images instead negative ones. Among Newton’s chief aims was replacing White Supremacy with a system of justice. Newton vehemently opposed capitalism because he viewed it as systematically repressive. He admired the work of Marx, who articulated the need for workers to have more ways of controlling a society’s means of production. Marx stressed international class solidarity across various classes and cultures. Marxists advocated poor whites and African-Americans realizing their common interests and ending racism through necessity. Huey P Newton surrounded himself with Marxists that read the works of visionaries like Fidel Castro, Mao, and Che Guevara. Often advocating an eye-to-eye ideology, Newton’s inner circle eventually realized that white reactionaries in the south were unmoved by ethical or religious appeals.
The Black Panthers were introduced to the American conscious when they protested an unpopular firearms ban. They felt that such a ban would endanger African-Americans, who were already economically and socially powerless. As a result of being introduced to Americans in this context, the Panthers were immediately branded as hoodlums. This was compounded by the fact that some of the group’s initial members had criminal records.15 Initially a small, fringe group, the Black Panther’s specter of influence grew rapidly. The Panthers eventually became the prominent Black Radical group in America because of their organizational structure and their unwillingness to compromise.
The group held a firm moral contract that all members were required to agree to abide by. Using drugs, committing crimes against other African-Americans, and speaking “off code” were grounds for expulsion. The Panthers believed in the “collective “and rejected individuality. They had witnessed the demise of previous groups that were unstructured and had various factions.16 The Black Panthers also were careful to codify their language so that they were not targeted as harshly by law enforcement or media outlets.17
When the Black Panthers began to appeal to white liberals, their ideology swung to a more moderate one. The Black Panthers were among the few groups to allow whites into their group.18 They began to recognize the contributions of white Americans like Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb. Both were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. The Black Panthers eventually hired white lawyers that had a history of working on behalf of civil rights for African Americans. Judson Jeffries, a scholar, believed that the Vietnam War delivered “the impeccable entrée for the Black Panther Party to attract white associates.”19
During the Vietnam War, the American government was viewed by American liberals as a force for colonialism. Radical autonomy was a philosophy intended to fight the colonialism that existed in American government. Newton and his acolytes conjectured that African-Americans had similar experiences to native Africans, Asians, Native Americans, and South Americans. All of these groups were subjugated by Europeans. Through these conjectures, Newton’s group advocated abolition of capitalism. Europeans were able to dominate these other groups because of capitalism. Socialism could potentially combat colonialism.20 In order to achieve such goals, Black Panthers extended themselves to other marginalized groups like blue-collar whites and Native Americans. They thought that marginalized people were continually targeted because they were a threat to capitalism.
From the Black Panther Party’s founding, Seale and Newton openly stated that the Black Panthers were not an organization that harbored racial resentment. The group clarified that they harbored resentment toward the oppressor, rather than white people. If Asians were the oppressor, the group would have fought against Asian Supremacy. Because the Panthers were the most prominent group to emerge after the initial civil rights struggle, they were forever tarred with racism smears. The group reminded many of the Nation of Islam, a group that similarly promoted liberation and freedom. This group held the belief that Europeans were inherently evil—regardless of whether they were oppressors. The Black Panthers were also portrayed as exclusionary in other ways.
Women were drawn to social justice movements like the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Chicano Movement, and the Black Panther Movement because these movements gave a voice to the constant burdens of people in disadvantaged groups. The Feminist movement only resonated with suburban, affluent women. Latino, Native, and African-American women wanted movements that they could be at the forefront of. Misogyny was a second attack detractors launched on the Panthers.
Social commentators like William Buckley often portrayed Black Panthers as a misogynist group. Because the Feminist Movement and Black Power Movement were happening simultaneously, people like Buckley devised ways to sabotage them. Detractors from these movements wanted to pit people from these movements against each other.21 Individuals like Buckley used Carmichael’s speeches to lend weight to their claims. Stokely Carmichael occasionally spoke of protecting women and preventing them from obtaining leadership positions. Hugh Pearson, a historian, has characterized the BPP’s handling of women as “pervasive and brazen.”22 Kathleen Cleaver and Barbara Easley, prominent female members of the Black Panthers, refute these claims. In a memoir, Cleaver lambasted the media for not having more women in positions of power.23
The Marxist orientation of the party was one the reasons that the party was able to alleviate sexism. Eventually, the party formally dissolved male and female designations. Jamal wrote that the women Panthers were “without question, the best of the Black Panther Party.”24 Though males within the Party originally saw females as subordinates, this view was quashed as they realized that females within the party were their “sisters”. Cleaver wrote that the party should “recognize that a women can be just as revolutionary as a man and that she has equal stature.”25
The Black Power movement was a transformative movement because it redefined with the black community’s route. It challenged blacks to reject the gradualism that was seemingly advocated for by the old civil rights guard. Huey P Newton, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, and others within the Black Power movement realized that starting from a radical place and occasionally compromising was better than starting from a compromising position.
The Black Power movement was unique because it was uncompromising and not willing to waver on its demands for justice. This was in direct contrast to the Civil Rights Movement, which many perceived as too compromising and too inclusive. The Black Panther Movement adopted the “you’re with us or against us mentality”. It was this mentality that helped shape its policies. Rather than being aimed at attracting white moderates, the Black Panther Movement was concerned with immediate justice, regardless of who its audience was. The Black Panther Movement also incorporated the idea of globalism and emphasized the failures of capitalism. In doing so, it helped enact social change and inspire movements like Black Lives Matter decades later.
Burn, Stewart. Social Movements of the 1960s: Searching for Democracy. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1990).
Civil Rights Act 1964.” In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, edited by Helicon. Helicon, 2016. https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/civil_rights_act_1964/0
Cleaver,Kathleen., Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and their Legacy, (New York: Routledge, 2001),
Draper, Theo. “The Black Panthers.” Beyond the New Left. Ed. Irv Howe. (New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1970), 220.
“Interview with Huey Newton” in Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Merrill, 1971
Judson Jeffries, Huey P. Newton: The Radical Theorist (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002),
Kasher, Steven. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1955-68. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1996)
King, Martin Luther. Stride toward freedom – the Montgomery story. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1958.
Lester,Julius Look Out, Whitey Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (New York, NY: Dial Press, 1968),
Muhammad, Elijah (1965). Message to the Blackman in America. Muhammad’s Temple
Mumia Jamal, We Want Freedom, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2004),