'Black Power!': Inside The Movement

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The Black Power movement was, and is, still widely viewed as an angry and unproductive counterpoint to the civil rights movement. But there was much more than that to the movement, and what it meant to the community. Peniel Joseph, a professor of African-American history at Brandeis University, explores the history of the Black Power Movement.


And from religion and politics we move to the history of political movements, Black Power. Now those are two words that immediately spark a free association of readymade images. Fists raised at the Mexico City Olympics, Stokely Carmichael in sunglasses, Angela Davis on an FBI wanted poster. The Black Power movement was and is still widely viewed as an angry and unproductive counterpoint to the civil rights movement. But is that all there was to it? A group of scholars and activists gathered at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture this week to grapple with that question.

Peniel Joseph, associate professor of African-American history at Brandeis University, gave the keynote address at the conference. And he is here with us now. Professor Joseph, thanks so much for joining us.

Professor PENIEL JOSEPH (Brandeis University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I'm thinking of that New Yorker cover of Michelle Obama channeling Angela Davis. I'm thinking about that comment by Juan Williams about the first Lady as Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress, evoked a huge reaction. And clearly this whole idea still of Black Power still has the power to raise temperatures. Why do you think that is?

Prof. JOSEPH: Well the movement was really considered an angry movement that practiced politics without portfolio and really is remembered by the images of gun-toting black urban militants, most notably the Black Panther Party. And it's really a movement that overtly criticized white supremacy. When we think about the civil rights movement, the civil rights movement offered a kind of racial rapprochement. We didn't characterize Martin Luther King Junior as black America's defense attorney, arguing that black people were in fact human beings and citizens but also telling black people that white people had enough love that there could be some kind of politics of racial reconciliation.

In contrast, we can argue that Malcolm X represented black America's prosecuting attorney. Malcolm in contrast to King, doesn't argue that black people are human beings. He says, takes that as a given. Instead, he argues that the United States and American democracy is actually American hypocrisy and that it's a country that needs to be punished for its crimes against black people.

MARTIN: Were the differences between, say, the Black Power leaders and the civil rights leaders, were they mainly stylistic and tactical differences or were there really fundamental values, ideological differences between the two?

Prof. JOSEPH: Well, certainly there's going to be differences of strategies and tactics. But I think their fundamental goals are going to converge. But in terms of their interpretations of the tactics that are required to get to those goals, they're going to be different. So, for example, someone like Martin Luther King Junior differs from Stokely Carmichael on the efficacy of the poor peoples' march. Carmichael thinks that organizing a poor peoples' march is not going to fundamentally transform race relations in the economic institutions of the United States. What's needed is some kind of Global revolution. King, on the other hand, thinks that the poor peoples' march can fundamentally transform these existing democratic institutions.

MARTIN: You argue that the Black Power movement had a lasting impact on American democratic institutions. How so? Because I think that a lot of people think of the movement as being fundamentally unproductive, just kind of reinforcing white fears, for example, about black advancement, reinforcing racial segregation by pushing both blacks and whites into their corner, as it were. What was the lasting impact of the movement?

Prof. JOSEPH: When we think about its impact on democratic institutions, it's really on multiple levels.

On one level, politically, the first generation of African-American elected officials, they owe their standing to both the civil rights and voting rights act of '64 and '65, but to actually get elected in places like Gary, Indiana in 1967, it required Black Power activism to help them build up new black, urban political machines.

So its impact is really, really profound, but a lot of its impact is folded into what we call civil rights in the contemporary period.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things about the movement was the rise of a number of charismatic female leaders, but there was also this, and you talk about this in your paper, this misogynistic rhetoric, and I think a lot of people have been puzzled by that.

Prof. JOSEPH: There's a deep, patriarchal, masculine strain that comes out of the postbellum United States, where groups of black male activists argue that black men have to protect their women and children, a lot of times at the expense of equal gender relations.

Many black women found that offensive, but many more actually found that heartening, that finally they were going to be protected from outside forces that were trying to exploit them for centuries.

MARTIN: I assume in the course of your work that you will have connected to a number of the surviving figures from the movement. Do they have any regrets about the way they positioned themselves? Do they wish that perhaps they had conducted themselves differently, in such a way that people would recognize their contributions to the end result? What do you think?

Prof. JOSEPH: Most of the activists who I've talked to, they do admit that they did things that were wrong at times. Many of them were in their 20s and 30s, very, very young people who were trying to change the world along with themselves simultaneously.

I do feel that they understand now more than they did back then that a political transformation requires long-distance runners, and it's not going to be a 100-yard dash.

MARTIN: That was Brandeis University Professor Peniel Joseph. He joined us from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he's currently a fellow at Harvard University. He offered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African-American History and Culture that examined the impact of the Black Power movement on America. Thank you so much for being with us.

Prof. JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.

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