April 4, 2008—the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 slaying in Memphis—provoked endless conversations about the way forward for black politics and whether it was King who truly prepared the nation to elect Barack Obama as the first black president. This year, the topic has moved beyond musings about what is possible for African Americans in the American political system, to the more controversial question: Just who deserves the credit for Obama’s decisive, historic victory?
It was one of the most provocative topics at a conference presented this week by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And though the event was convened in the days before the anniversary of the King assassination, the topic of discussion was not the civil rights movement which King so embodies, but rather the black power movement.
The symposium brought together 1968 veterans Amiri Baraka, Kathleen Cleaver, Charles Cobb Jr. and Sonia Sanchez to discuss the impact of the black power movement on America. In one of the more dynamic roundtable discussions on politics, King’s name scarcely came up. Rather, Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland and a veteran black political activist, reminded listeners that “there were two post civil rights movements.” The nonviolent, conciliatory approach that brought King martyrdom, he said, still overshadows the more confrontational forces that barricaded buildings, condemned government and radicalized thousands of blacks in the 1960s. And the more militant movement, Walters and other panelists argued convincingly, deserves as much credit for priming America for Barack Obama as the peaceful protest marches mainstream that Americans are much more comfortable embracing.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, also on the panel, elaborated: “I see a direct link between the black power movement, the civil rights movement and where we are today; between the African Americans who stood in long lines in 1984 and 1988 because Jesse Jackson was running and the long lines we saw just a few months ago in North Carolina and Virginia to help get President Obama over the top.”
Black nationalism is often viewed as a countercultural, anarchic force in American politics—but revisit the successful black campaigns of the 20th century and a different story emerges. “Those first black urban political machines were built with the help of black power militants,” says Peniel Johnson, a professor of Afro-American Studies at Brandeis.
Not only did followers of Malcolm X participate in some of the collective efforts of the golden age of civil rights, they helped to elect the first wave of African-American officeholders since Reconstruction. Mayors Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm—later the first woman to run for president in the United States—were swept into office on the back of organizing tactics honed during the fight for voting rights in the 1960s. In 1970, Baraka, Jesse Jackson and others backed Kenneth Gibson, a city engineer running for mayor of Newark. “We will nationalize the city's institutions as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola,” Baraka wrote at the time. And still, Gibson won!
With that, black power politics was off and running. While the Black Panther Party often scoffed at participatory democracy in a supposedly racist society, “electoral politics in that time had a very strong black nationalist characteristic,” says Walters. “And presidential politics was extremely important,” he adds. The 1972 Chisholm campaign set the countercultural tone, and by 1983, the same strategy of black voter empowerment put Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, in office. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns had a familiar insurgent quality: “Everyone said ‘Run, Jesse, run’—so if you were a nationalist, a pan-Africanist or wherever you were, how could you not join that campaign?” Walters said. The Jackson effort also trained blacks like Brazile, who says she is “living proof that there was a black power movement in America.”
But, while King’s legacy grew in these years, the black power movement became reduced to polarizing caricatures of Panthers Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton—who couldn’t win elected office at the barrel of a gun. And as their radicalism went out of style, many in the next wave of black politicians such as Mayors Wilson Goode in Philadelphia and David Dinkins in New York City strayed away from messages of racial solidarity or black unity. By the 1990s, men like L. Douglas Wilder, former governor of Virginia, were making the first attempts at “post-racial” politicking. The election of Oxford-bred, thoroughly modern Newark Mayor Cory Booker seemed to close the chapter opened 35 years before, when Baraka taught Newark youngsters how to print and post “Black Power!” slogans around the city.
Still, even as black politicians continued to craft new approaches, more in-tune with the country’s changing racial landscape, many of the core organizing principles honed during the black power movement had been absorbed into the fabric of American politics. “We have affirmative action in the Democratic Party,” says Brazile. “If you ever want to see a black woman fight, come and try to mess with the rules that were put in place by the Jackson campaign…. I am a keeper of that flame; we put those rules in place and you don’t touch them.”
The question remains, what effect did this complex and misunderstood history—a nuanced mixture of peaceful agitation and in-your-face militancy—have on a young Barack Obama? Obama’s rise, on the backs of a multi-racial and regional voting coalition, might suggest he’s chosen the way of King.
But in Dreams From My Father, Obama describes feeling ambivalent about the traditional civil rights model. He took one look at the man who offered him his first organizing job, a man wearing “a crisp white shirt, a paisley tie and red suspenders,” in an office where “sunlight streamed down on a bust of Dr. King”—and ran in the opposite direction. “I declined his generous offer,” Obama wrote, “deciding I needed a job closer to the streets.”
Obama’s shrewd political maneuverings in the years that followed beg the question: What streets? The black power movement seems conspicuously absent in the tactics of Obama and the rest of the new black vanguard. Today’s prominent figures such as D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Illinois and Gov. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, provide grist for the idea that with the right message and disciplined campaigning (cue David Axelrod) blacks no longer need to gin up racial solidarity to be elected. And these candidates’ noticeable lack of bombast suggests that even the best accessories of the black power movement may be passé.
Revisiting the black power movement to diminish 40 years of caricature and rightly acknowledge its broad and lasting influence is a meaningful exercise. But however the organizational strategies of the movement have been absorbed into modern politics, the spirit of the black political movement and the American electorate has changed dramatically. In the 2010 election cycle and beyond, the task of black advancement may be better served by reaching out to non-majority-minority districts, running black candidates that do not have to court black-only turnout or wait in line for black incumbents to move on.
Who deserves the credit for the current state of black politics? The answer, of course, is both the civil rights movement and the black power movement. And for whatever outsider status each side held or seemed to embrace, their mutual objective was to get inside the machine, to transform it from within. As King wrote: “Equally imperative is the development of a strong voice that is heard in the smoke-filled rooms where party debating and bargaining proceed.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.