A Narrative History of Black Power in America: Identity, Culture, Equality, Integration (2007)


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Black Power is a political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African/Black descent.[1] It is used by African Americans in the United States.[2] It 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[3] 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."

Black Power adherents believed in Black autonomy, with a variety of tendencies such as black nationalism, and black separatism. Such positions caused friction with leaders of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, and thus the two movements have sometimes been viewed as inherently antagonistic. However, many groups and individuals - including Rosa Parks,[8] Robert F. Williams, Maya Angelou, Gloria Richardson, and Fay Bellamy Powell - participated in both civil rights and black power activism. A growing number of scholars conceive of the civil rights and black power movements as one interconnected Black Freedom Movement.[9][10][11]

Not all Black Power advocates were in favor of black separatism. While Stokely Carmichael and SNCC were in favor of separatism for a time in the late 1960s, organizations such as the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were not. Though the Panthers considered themselves to be at war with the prevailing white supremacist power structure, they were not at war with all whites, but rather those (mostly white) individuals empowered by the injustices of the structure and responsible for its reproduction.

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."[12]

Internationalist offshoots of black power include African Internationalism, pan-Africanism, black nationalism, and black supremacy.

The term "Black Power" was used in a different sense in the 1850s by Black leader Frederick Douglass as an alternative name for the Slave Power—that is the disproportionate political power at the national level held by slave owners in the South.[13] Douglass predicted: "The days of Black Power are numbered. Its course, indeed is onward. But with the swiftness of an arrow, it rushes to the tomb. While crushing its millions, it is also crushing itself. The sword of Retribution, suspended by a single hair, hangs over it. That sword must fall. Liberty must triumph."[14]

In apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress used the call-and-response chant "Amandla! (Power!)", "Ngawethu! (The power is ours!)" from the late 1950s onward.[15]

The modern American concept emerged from the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Beginning in 1959, Robert F. Willams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, openly questioned the ideology of nonviolence and its domination of the movement's strategy. Williams was supported by prominent leaders such as Ella Baker and James Forman, and opposed by others, such as Roy Wilkins (the national NAACP chairman) and Martin Luther King.[16] In 1961, Maya Angelou, Leroi Jones, and Mae Mallory led a riotous (and widely-covered) demonstration at the United Nations to protest the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.[17][18] Malcolm X, national representative of the Nation of Islam, also launched an extended critique of nonviolence and integrationism at this time. After seeing the increasing militancy of blacks in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and wearying of the domination of Elijah Muhammed over the Nation of Islam, Malcolm left that organization and engaged with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm was now open to voluntary integration as a long-term goal, but still supported armed self-defense, self-reliance, and black nationalism; he became a simultaneous spokesman for the militant wing of the Civil Rights Movement and the non-separatist wing of the Black Power movement.

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