Fifty years ago this Thursday, the call for “black power” by Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Miss., transformed the black freedom struggle.
Frightening white citizens while transforming black identity, the black power movement’s call for radical political self-determination challenged liberal frameworks for racial equality in profound ways that continue to reverberate to this day. Black power took us beyond civil rights protests and challenged the structural nature of race, class and gender inequality, and in the process galvanized domestic and international struggles for liberation.
Just as today’s Black Lives Matter activists have recognized the criminal-justice system as a gateway to multifaceted systems of racial oppression, black power activists identified the Vietnam War, Jim Crow racism and poverty as panoramic threats against racial equality and economic justice.
Under Carmichael’s leadership, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), turned “black power” into a clarion call, a phrase that identified an already existing movement for black liberation that had been led by the indefatigable Malcolm X.
But Malcolm’s ideas of black solidarity, the cultural politics of race, anti-colonialism and human rights flourished past his assassination.
Carmichael, a Trinidadian immigrant-turned-brash New Yorker activist, became the black power movement’s most well-known and charismatic spokesperson, publicly repudiating racism, war and white supremacy while vowing to fight for freedom by any means necessary.
"It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community,” Carmichael said. “It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations."
The most famous group to heed Carmichael’s call to action was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Founded in Oakland, Calif., in October 1966, the Panthers derived their name from black sharecroppers in Lowndes County, Ala., but were inspired by Malcolm X. Maverick black nationalists, budding socialists and unconventional Marxists, the Panthers organized around ending police brutality, the tip of the spear in an expansive revolutionary program that called for “land, peace, bread and justice” for the black community.
Brandishing shotguns, pistols and bandoliers, with powder-blue T-shirts, leather jackets and black berets, the Panthers became the most enduring symbol of black power activism’s bracing challenge against institutional racism. In an era before mass incarceration and Black Lives Matter, the Panthers regarded the criminal-justice system as a racist gulag designed to demonize and denigrate poor blacks. On this score, the group developed innovative and enduring anti-poverty programs that offered free breakfast for children, health clinics, ambulance services, tenant and legal aid, and prisoner-rights advocacy.
The “black consciousness” movement spurred by Carmichael’s call for black power touched every sector of the African-American community. Black college and high school students responded to the movement by pushing for black-history and black-studies programs and changing the names of public schools to honor past activists. Poets, writers and artists embarked on a Black Arts Movement, led by Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, that embraced a new, complex black identity, one closely tied to Africa. Angela Davis, George Jackson and the Attica prison rebellion helped expand the movement’s political terrain by elevating black prisoners to the forefront of radical political organizing in the early 1970s.
A broad range of black artists, from Nina Simone to James Brown and Marvin Gaye, drew inspiration from a movement that challenged white supremacy from the inside out. For the black middle class, magazines like Essence (launched in 1970) provided new, expansive notions of black beauty that would culminate in a transformed media landscape by the 1970s. The search for black identity would reach its popular peak with the broadcast of the television series Roots, which was watched by over 100 million Americans in 1977.
But the black power rise was countered by multiple efforts to smash the movement. FBI, state and local authorities arrested, harassed, threatened and at times killed activists, dozens of whom remain in jail to this day. Carmichael himself was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, planting evidence that made him look like a CIA informant, causing Carmichael’s expulsion from both the Black Panthers and SNCC. President Richard Nixon attempted, at times successfully, to redefine black power as black capitalism, a maneuver that co-opted radical energies into believing that black faces in higher places would lead to freedom.
By the 1980s, black power activists could point to Harold Washington’s successful Chicago mayoral campaign, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s passionate 1984 presidential run and the global impact of the anti-apartheid movement as testaments to the movement’s endurance, but its heyday had past.
But today, Black Lives Matter activism has served as a valediction of the movement. This passionate, disruptive activism against mass incarceration and police killings has spilled over onto college campuses in defiant displays of protest and civil disobedience that recall America’s heady black power years, echoing a time when a 24-year-old black revolutionary walked along a Mississippi highway and made the earth stand still.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.