Black Power in the United States

Black Power in the United States, political movement expressing a new racial consciousness among blacks in the United States in the late 1960s. Black Power represented both a conclusion to the decade's Civil Rights Movement and a reaction against the racism that persisted despite the efforts of black activists during the early 1960s. Black Power was influential mainly in the late 1960s.

The meaning of Black Power was debated vigorously while the movement was in progress. To some it represented blacks' insistence on racial dignity and self-reliance, which was usually interpreted as economic and political independence, as well as freedom from white authority.

These themes had been advanced most forcefully in the early 1960s by Malcolm X, the articulate and controversial black Muslim leader. He argued that blacks should focus on improving their own communities rather than striving for complete integration, and that blacks had the right to retaliate against violent assaults. The publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) created further support for the idea of black self-determination and had a strong influence on the emerging leaders of the Black Power Movement.

Other interpreters of Black Power emphasized the cultural heritage of blacks, especially the African roots of black identity. This view encouraged study and celebration of black history and culture. In the late 1960s black college students requested curricula in black studies that explored their distinctive culture and history. Led by the cultural critic Harold Cruse and the poet Amiri Baraka, some black intellectuals called for a cultural-nationalist perspective on literature, art, and history in the belief that blacks had separate values and ways of living. Blacks often expressed a sense of cultural nationalism by wearing loose, brightly colored African garments, called dashikis, and the natural "Afro" hairstyle.

Still another view of Black Power called for a revolutionary political struggle to reject racism and imperialism in the U.S., as well as throughout the world. This interpretation encouraged the unity of nonwhites, including Hispanics and Asians, against their perceived oppressors. Revolutionary nationalists like Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, first advocated a worldwide Marxist revolution but later emphasized Pan-Africanism, the political and cultural unity of all people of African origins.

Black Power as a political idea originated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the mid-1960s. By 1965 many SNCC workers, frustrated at southern whites' continued resistance to black civil rights, believed that any future progress could come only through independent black political power. When that faction took over the organization in 1966, with Carmichael leading the way, whites were ejected from SNCC membership.

Widespread use of the term Black Power started in June 1966 during a protest march through Mississippi begun by James Meredith, who had been the first black to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith was wounded by a sniper during the march and had to be hospitalized. Leaders of several civil rights organizations, including Carmichael and Martin Luther King Jr., took up the march. Along the route, Carmichael and SNCC activists exhorted marchers by demanding, "What do you want?" and then leading the response, "Black Power!"

The national media began to report on Black Power, which immediately drew condemnation from whites for its racially separatist message. Leaders of several black organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), also denounced Black Power. As head of the SCLC, King, who many people viewed as the leader of blacks in the U.S., voiced his disapproval of the threatening, antiwhite message often associated with Black Power. While encouraging blacks to be proud of their race and to appreciate their heritage, King advised them to "avoid the error of building a distrust for all white people."

From 1966 to 1969 SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a New York-based civil rights organization, were dominated by Black Power. In 1966 and 1967 Carmichael and his successor as chairman of SNCC, H. Rap Brown, became well known as national spokespeople for Black Power. Brown once said, "Violence is as American as apple pie." Such statements were condemned by many whites and some blacks as efforts to instigate racial division and violence.

Opposition to Black Power became stronger in 1968 when the Black Panther Party, which had been founded in Oakland, California, in 1966, became the most prominent organization advocating Black Power. Black Panthers battled with police departments in several major American cities between 1968 and 1970, and several of the group's leaders were killed, imprisoned, or made fugitives from the police. The party split in 1972, with some of its leaders favoring peaceful means to achieve its goals and others still urging revolution. Although Black Power as a movement largely disappeared after 1970, the idea remained a powerful one in the consciousness of black Americans.


Contributed By:
Robert J. Norrell