Reimagining The Black Power Movement
Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama,
By Peniel Joseph,
Hardcover, 288 pages
Basic Civitas Books: $26.00
In an era before multiculturalism and diversity, the Black Power movement introduced a new political landscape that permanently altered black identity. The politics of Black Power scandalized race relations in the United States and transformed American democracy. The daring and provocative rhetoric of activists like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael unleashed passionate debates and sparked enduring controversy over the very meaning of black identity, American citizenship, and the prospect of a social, political, and cultural revolution. Malcolm and Carmichael questioned the legitimacy of democratic institutions whose doors were closed off to African Americans. In their lifetimes, both turned to community organizing as a vehicle for empowering black people—Malcolm on some of New York City's toughest street corners and Carmichael in America's Southern black-belt region. As their notoriety grew, both men publicly criticized presidential leadership in regard to domestic race relations, blasted America's participation in Vietnam, and linked struggles against Jim Crow in the United States with anticolonial movements that were raging throughout the world. In doing so, both of these Black Power icons helped to expand the boundaries of American democracy. Black Power activists, no less than their more celebrated civil rights counterparts, contributed to postwar America's transformed landscape. In order to understand the American journey from Black Power to Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president, we must cast a spotlight on the movement's at-times star-crossed relationship with democratic institutions. Although Obama's election has sparked widespread nostalgia about America's civil rights years, it has offered scant analysis of this watershed historical moment's relationship to Black Power.
But today many still wonder: What exactly was Black Power? At its peak during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black Power touched every aspect of African American life in the United States. A wide range of the citizenship advocated a political program rooted in Black Power ideology, such as Black sharecroppers in Lowndes County, Alabama; urban militants in Harlem, New York; trade unionists in Detroit; Black Panthers in Oakland, California; and welfare and tenants' rights activists in Baltimore. A broad range of students, intellectuals, poets, artists, and politicians followed suit, turning the term "Black Power" into a generational touchstone that evoked hope and anger, despair and determination. But, in time, this aspect of Black Power was forgotten.
Now, Black Power is most often remembered as the civil rights era's ruthless twin. In most historical accounts of the 1960s, the civil rights movement represents the collective black consciousness of the postwar era. In these accounts, Black Power is then relegated as its evil doppelganger, having engaged in thoughtless acts of violence and rampaging sexism, and provoking a white backlash before it was finally brought to an end by its own self- destructive rage. The movement therefore emerges as the destructive coda of a hopeful era, a fever-dream filled with violent images and excessive rhetoric that ultimately undermined Martin Luther King Jr.'s prophetic vision of interracial democracy.
Black Power represents the manifestation of the brute force and physical rage of the African American underclass. Because it is seen as being devoid of intellectual power, uncomfortable with nuanced debate, and wracked by miseries both seen and unseen, the movement's legacy is considered inconsequential at best and mindlessly destructive at its worst. Yet for a movement that is now reviled, Black Power's impact spanned America's local, regional, and national borders and beyond. It galvanized political activists in the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and much of the world. Regardless of this influence, much of Black Power's history remains obscure and undocumented. Skewed memory too often serves as a substitute for actual history. Historians have only recently begun the long overdue process of rescuing the Black Power era, separating history from myth, fact from fiction. Black Power's origins and geography, activists and ideology, as well as its relationship to the civil rights movement remain pivotal to understanding postwar America. Black Power activists not only operated in the civil rights movement's long shadow, they at times also participated simultaneously in both arenas. In fact, America's Black Power years (1954–1975) paralleled the golden age of modern civil rights activism, a period that witnessed the rise of iconic political leaders; triggered enduring debates over race, violence, war, and democracy; featured the publication of seminal intellectual works; and propelled the evolution of radical social movements that took place against a backdrop of epic historic events. Indeed, black militancy and moderation often fed one another, producing a combative ongoing dialogue between the two that provoked inspiration and anxiety as it also inspired both begrudging admiration as well as mutual recriminations.
Black Power offered a fresh approach to struggles for racial justice. It redefined national racial politics even as local activists used it as a template for regional struggles. These efforts spanned Northern metropolises, Midwestern cities, Southern towns, hamlets out West, to California's eclectic political landscape. The movement's scope broadly impacted world affairs, and Black Power activists found inspiration in Cuba, hope in Africa, support in Europe, and the promise of redemption in the larger Third World. Moreover, the movement's call for social justice and robust self- determination appealed to a wide variety of multiracial and multiethnic groups, who patterned their own militancy after Black Power's rhetorical and aesthetic flourishes. Black Power's influence traversed oceans to impact struggles for racial justice and national liberation around the world.
Rethinking the contours of the Black Power era requires expanding the narrative of civil rights struggles in postwar American history. Conventional histories of the era concentrate on the years 1954 to 1965. These are the years that are bookended by the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and they are seen as encompassing the whole—rather than part—of a messy and complicated history. This perspective, one that is now enshrined as public memory of the era, envisions these years as the movement's heroic period. For instance, it is during this period that cultural memory locates courageous civil rights workers who risked beatings, incarceration, and their lives to register blacks to vote. The truth is that both civil rights and Black Power contain a larger historical trajectory and a richer cast of characters than previously assumed. In order to understand the complexity of this historical progression, we must revisit that journey and cast of players.
Both civil rights and Black Power have immediate roots in the Great Depression and the Second World War. If World War II signaled the defeat of fascism and the decline of European colonial empires as it also extended new freedoms to far corners of the globe, it also imbued black U.S. veterans and ordinary citizens with a sense of hard-fought political entitlement. Black Americans were among the fiercest partisans in the efforts to harness the political energies unleashed during wartime so as to secure new rights at home as well as abroad.
Spurred by massive migration, African Americans relocated to urban metropolises in staggering numbers, which turned New York's Harlem neighborhood into a black metropolis during the 1920s. Then, in the 1940s, the Great Migration's second act exploded in a rush of energy that was as ferocious as it was hopeful. In addition to this new energy, it was also in bracing numbers that eclipsed its earlier incarnation. Because of this, it was during this time that black Americans led a national movement for social justice that stretched from urban inner cities, to rural Southern labor factories out West, and all the way to the Bay Area cities of Oakland and San Francisco. National political activists such as Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois became icons of this age, which combined dynamic political action with cultural organizing that made the prospect for radical democracy in the United States seem inevitable. The war's freedom surge created unprecedented political alliances that featured the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in cooperation with Robeson's militant Council on African Affairs. Walking in lockstep with these new times was the eminent black scholar and civil rights activist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. He headlined a broad coalition of human rights activists who placed optimistic faith in the United Nations as a harbinger for a new world. Robeson and Du Bois served as internationally known luminaries of racial justice, even as grassroots movements were led at the local level by activists like Ella Baker, the NAACP branch director and future founder of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The black radicals who came of political age during the Great Depression and the war years preached a gospel of freedom whose resolute and at times strident message seemed inspired by Old Testament prophets. For instance, Asa Phillip Randolph emerged as the era's most powerful black labor activist, sparking a March On Washington Movement. He then used the threat of mass demonstration to coerce President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into issuing an executive order—though largely symbolic—banning segregation in the armed forces. This action then provided the historical context for a second March On Washington two decades later. Collectively, the black radicals of this time set an agenda for a new world order that sprang from aligning domestic struggles against Jim Crow with international crusades against fascism and colonialism. But the advent of the Cold War would disappoint them.
Those early civil rights organizations who interpreted racism as an international issue looked toward the United Nations for help in defining human rights as a global movement that encompassed racial equality. However, the 1948 Truman Doctrine's promise of a global movement to spread democracy engendered a hard peace through the threat of a worldwide atomic war. Cold War politics stymied the effectiveness of civil rights militancy and blunted the cohesiveness of civil rights coalitions. It was then during the years between 1954 and 1965 that America's new political center offered the carrot of desegregation and voting rights against the stick of red-baiting to a burgeoning Southern civil rights movement. Over time, African independence movements and the Cuban Revolution would complicate this arrangement. Both the civil rights and Black Power Movements drew inspiration from postwar freedom surges. The difference between them, however, was that while the Southern civil rights movement navigated within Cold War- designated boundaries, Black Power activists were inspired by the radical political struggles that abounded during the Great Depression and war years. Against the backdrop of the Cold War's political constraints that smeared desegregation efforts in the South was anti-Communist propaganda claiming that Black Power activists embarked on a dangerous course that openly embraced association with left-wing political forces both domestically and overseas.
Reprinted from Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama with permission from Basic Civitas Books. Copyright (c) 2010 by Peniel Joseph.