Black Power

Against this volatile background of black urban rebellion, the civil rights movement could no longer exist as it had before. The strategies of nonviolence that had been so successful in changing legislation seemed ill-fated in the face of police violence and urban rebellions. A new generation of young leaders in SNCC, and increasingly in CORE, felt that the Johnson Administration's pursuit of the Vietnam War undermined the new agenda of the freedom movement--to fight for equal economic opportunity. They also increasingly questioned the role of whites in the movement. In early 1966, Floyd McKissick, a black attorney from North Carolina, replaced James Farmer as head of CORE. McKissick favored the development of all-black institutions and economic initiatives. At about the same time, Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as the head of SNCC. A veteran of nonviolent political organizing in the Deep South in the early 1960s, Carmichael had been brutally beaten and imprisoned. He came to believe that the strategy of nonviolence could not, in the long run, dissipate white racism. By the late 1960s, he, and other people within the movement, had grown impatient with the slow pace of change and believed that blacks needed to focus their attention on building their own independent all-black political organizations and institutions.

"Black Power" refers to the second phase of the black freedom movement, when it dominated African American politics and social activism from 1966 to 1975. Militancy, however, was a paradigm and strategy that had long existed prior to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1950s, several key organizations supported the notion of organized armed resistance to the oppressive Jim Crow state of America. To fight back against the racial terror of the Ku Klux Klan, an NAACP leader, Robert Williams, was an important figure in asserting the right. These groups, like the Deacons for Defense, frequently served as the armed protection for nonviolent marchers in the Deep South. Similarly, the Black Power movement was an amalgam of conflicting organizations and constituencies, all dedicated to the ideal of enhancing black empowerment through the building of black institutions, the creation of black businesses, and electing black people to positions of public authority to run their neighborhoods, cities, and states.

A short list of some of the major tendencies within Black Power would include several types of black nationalisms: black economic nationalism--represented by CORE' s McKissick, who favored the development of black businesses, banks, and private enterprise with separate, all-black communities; black religious nationalism, reflected in the Nation of Islam, which preached a conservative patriarchal creed of racial separation and selective elements of traditional Islam; black cultural nationalism, expressed by a new "black aesthetic" engaged in the production of a black militant theater and literature, such as that reflected in the creative writings of Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones) and symbolized by Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanza, who emphasized the central role of African identity and heritage among black Americans; revolutionary black nationalism, which combined a Marxist political critique of both class and racial inequality, favoring solidarity with Third World countries and the Vietnamese liberation struggle against the United States, which was best represented by the Black Panther Party, the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and black political nationalism, reflected in the collective efforts by thousands of black activists, who ran for elective office on political platforms promising to channel resources and economic benefits to inner-city neighborhoods. "Black militancy" came to be interpreted in an almost inexhaustible number of ways: "afro" hairstyles; African-inspired dress; selecting Swahili, Hausa, Yoruba, or Arabic names; soul music, such as James Brown's hit "Say It Loud, I'm Black and Proud"; the creation of black-oriented neighborhood schools, cultural centers, civic associations, and agencies that preached black self-reliance, self-respect, and a rejection of racial assimilation into the white world.

Members of the Black Panther Party demonstrating outside a New York City courthouse, April 11, 1969.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Enlarge image

While black power or black nationalist-inspired organizations sprung up all over the United States, perhaps most infamous of the groups was the Black Panther Party. In October 1966, two student activists, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California. The original purpose of the party was to create a security force to protect black residents from the local police. The Ten-Point Program of The Black Panther Party (BPP) included demands for full employment, decent housing, education for all, an end to police brutality, and the liberation of black men imprisoned in federal and state penitentiaries. Significantly, the tenth point in the BPP' s program demanded: "Land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny."

In May 1967, BPP co-founder Bobby Seale, and a group of party members marched into the California State Capitol building, fully armed, to read a protest statement. The police immediately arrested all 30 Panthers in the demonstration, and the BPP became the target of extensive surveillance and disruption from the FBI and local law enforcement agencies.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to the BPP as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." In 1967, when Fred Hampton was only 19 years old, the FBI established a file on him that would soon amount to thousands of pages. In early 1968, Hampton's mother's telephone was wiretapped. An FBI counterintelligence operative, William O'N eal, joined the Chicago chapter of the BPP, and convinced others to let him serve as the group's chief of security. Hampton was murdered in his sleep by police in a raid on his apartment in 1969. In 1969 alone, 27 Panthers were killed by the police and 749 were jailed throughout the country.

By late 1968, the Panthers had come under such overt police assault throughout the country that the party retreated from some of its more extreme positions and began to emphasize the construction of social welfare programs for the most disadvantaged members of the black community. In January 1969, the BPP initiated the free breakfast program for school children. By the end of that year, over 10,000 children of low-income families were being fed daily by the party. In several cities, the Panthers provided free legal services and health care facilities, and the organization increased its popular following among black working class and poor people, and particularly among young people.

Through the FBI' s counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, federal agents worked closely with state and local law enforcement officials to watch, arrest, imprison, and, in several instances, to assassinate, Black Panther and other black nationalist leaders and members. Similar tactics of surveillance had been applied to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and earlier civil rights leaders such as Paul Robeson. Black Power groups began to be dismantled as organizational stability was weakened by surveillance, infiltration, and raids by federal and local police agents. Yet the tenets of the Black Power movement continue to inform people's individual identity and notion of black solidarity to this day.

Related Resources

What We Want; What We Believe.
October 1966 Black Panther Party Platform and Program.

Members of the Black Panther Party demonstrating outside a New York City courthouse, April 11, 1969.
Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The Goals of the Black Power Movement.
Columbia University professor Manning Marable describes the aims of the Black Power movement. Source: Columbia University.