Are We Overlooking The Black Power Behind Obama? The national narrative about Barack Obama's rise to the presidency often takes root in Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy. But one author says not enough attention is being paid to the other main line of succession in African-American leadership — the one that stems from Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the black power movement.

Are We Overlooking The Black Power Behind Obama?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122569310/122680544" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

A year ago this week, when Barack Obama stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to take the presidential oath of office, it was often described as the climax of a journey that began 46 years earlier, at the other end of the National Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Doctor MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.

RAZ: That's Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of course, in his famous address at the 1963 March on Washington. And this weekend, we honor Dr. King's legacy with a national holiday.

But according to historian Peniel Joseph, there's another line of succession in African-American leadership, one that reaches from President Obama back to this man.

Mr. MALCOLM X: You've got a right. You've got a right to protect yourself by any means necessary.

(Soundbite of applause)

RAZ: By any means necessary, the words of Malcolm X. Peniel Joseph's new book is called "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama." And Peniel Joseph joins me from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. PENIEL JOSEPH (Author, "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama"): Thank you for having me.

RAZ: You argue that this connection between Barack Obama and the Black Power movement has largely been ignored by historians, by the media, by pundits. Why do you think that is?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, I think that the connection between Black Power and Barack Obama doesn't fit a neat and simplistic national narrative about the success and evolution of the civil rights struggle. And it's really a narrative that Obama himself contributed to when he invoked Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr.

When we think about the Black Power movement, Black Power is usually characterized as a movement of gun-toting militants who practice politics without portfolio and drag down a more promising movement for social justice, in this case the civil rights movement.

And one of the things that I argue in this book is that when we think about Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, at the heart, at the root, these were two organizers who tried to organize at the local and then national level to try to transform American democratic institutions.

RAZ: But there was a violent aspect to it, as well. I mean, Stokely Carmichael was obviously involved with founding the Black Panther movement. I mean, there was definitely a kind of - a hard edge to some of what he was saying.

Mr. JOSEPH: Absolutely. When we think about violence and the rhetoric of Black Power, violence does play a role in the iconography of this movement. But one of the things I argue empirically when we look at the history of the movement, most black power activists were not violent. Most did not use violence in their rhetoric.

So when we think about violence, violence is definitely an important part of this story, but I also think it's one whose legacy, in terms of the movement, has been overstated.

RAZ: I want to hear a clip of what President Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams from my Father," about what set Malcolm X apart from other black leaders of the era.

President BARACK OBAMA: (Reading) Only Malcolm X' autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me.

Mr. JOSEPH: Peniel Joseph, how important was Malcolm X as an influence, do you think, to Barack Obama?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, I think Malcolm is really important in the sense that Malcolm is the quintessential, self-made African-American political activist and political icon and leader of the post-war period. So Malcolm is really coming from a really humble background. He grows up in Roxbury, Detroit and Harlem. He becomes a thief, a burglar, a pimp, a dope peddler and is in prison by the time he's 21 in 1946.

And it's really in prison that he becomes a new, different type of person. So when we think about Malcolm X, Malcolm X is a great example of a self-made man, and Barack Obama admires self-made men in American history.

RAZ: Peniel Joseph, you point to Malcolm X' early years as an activist, when he was a community organizer. Is that, in your view, the kind of primary link between President Obama and people like Malcolm X and others you describe, like Stokely Carmichael?

Mr. JOSEPH: Absolutely. I think at their core, they are community organizers. Malcolm organized in the streets of Harlem in the 1950s but also in places like Philadelphia and Detroit. And Stokely Carmichael is a quintessential civil-rights-organizer-turned-black-power-militant in the 1960s.

RAZ: Stokely Carmichael coined the term Black Power. And I want to play a bit of a speech he gave around that time, in the year 1966.

Mr. CARMICHAEL: Now, we are engaged in a psychological struggle in this country, and that is whether or not black people will have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction to it.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CARMICHAEL: And we maintain whether they like it or not, we're going to use the word black power and let them address themselves to that.

RAZ: Peniel Joseph, you acknowledge in the book that this kind of tone is very different, of course, from the message that President Obama delivered as a candidate and delivers as president, yet you argue that people like Stokely Carmichael helped pave the way for the future president.

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, when we think about the black power movement, people like Carmichael actually transform our understanding and definition of black identity. They also transformed the sphere of politics. So, before the black power movement, there's no Congressional Black Caucus. There isn't a generation of black mayors and black politicians. It's black power militants who really precipitate the utilization of racial solidarity to bring black elected officials prominence.

RAZ: In your view, which legacy is more responsible for the ascendency of President Obama, the legacy of Malcolm X, or the legacy of Dr. King?

Mr. JOSEPH: Well, I would answer that by saying, really, I do believe it's both equally. I think Dr. King and his vision of a transcendent, multiracial, multicultural democracy is pivotal in shaping both Obama, but also shaping race relations and opportunities that allowed Obama to go to Harvard, that allowed Obama to go to Columbia and to become president of the United States.

But I also believe that Malcolm X and his envelope-pushing critique of American democracy gave people like King room to operate and maneuver and also helped mobilize political protests that actually transformed political and educational and social institutions on the ground in ways that played a particularly important role in getting Obama elected, as well.

RAZ: Peniel Joseph teaches history at Tufts University. His new book is called "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama."

Peniel Joseph, thank you so much.

Mr. JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.