Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic young civil-rights activist, had just been released from a Mississippi jail when he first uttered the cry “Black Power!” It had been his 27th arrest during the long struggle -- and his phrase transformed U.S. race relations.
Carmichael’s words, spoken 50 years ago this past Thursday, quickly gripped the national imagination. They served as a racial Rorschach test. Many blacks heard in them a bold call for political self-determination. Many whites feared they would turn into a call for violent retribution.
This new black-consciousness movement swept the nation, much the way young African-American activists now rely on social media, public demonstrations and grassroots organizing. The Black Lives Matter movement, which also recognizes the systemic nature of inequality in American society, echoes Black Power’s stirring call for an end to institutional racism, mass incarceration, violence and war.
Carmichael, an admirer of Malcolm X and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., defined Black Power as the logical outgrowth of civil-rights activism that he believed had run into a brick wall of white-supremacist opposition in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislative and legal victories achieved had failed to end all institutional racism, economic inequality and racial violence.
Carmichael’s words ignited a national controversy and helped identify a developing movement, one that had been led by the fallen black radical icon Malcolm X. That movement paralleled civil rights struggles and would flower over the next decade.
Although part of the same historical family tree, Black Power and civil rights were separate, if at times overlapping, branches. Black Power activists framed racial oppression as a global phenomenon linked to colonialism and exploitation of the Third World. In contrast, the civil rights movement focused unshakeable faith in the capacity of postwar liberalism to address and end racial discrimination.
Black Power activists braided together ideas from socialism, radical feminism, Marxism, nationalism and pan-Africanism into a panoramic critique of American democracy. In so doing, they anticipated the Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on the ties between the personal experiences of race, class, sexuality and gender and the abstract issues of institutional, legal and political oppression.
The Black Panthers, who promoted a socialist revolution backed by armed self-defense, community action programs and radical brio, came to represent the face of 1960s political radicalism. They sought to will a world they dreamt of into existence.
Led by black working-class activists Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, and emboldened by the addition of ex-convict-turned-best-selling-author ("Soul on Ice") Eldridge Cleaver and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Kathleen Neal Cleaver, the group became one of the most identifiable radical organizations. Its 10-point program advocated a socialist revolution to end institutional racism, provide full employment and housing, and release black prisoners from jail.
The group organized notorious armed community patrols in Oakland, California, to shadow law enforcement in a controversial effort to end police brutality. It displayed a more pragmatic side with its programs to serve free breakfasts in inner-city communities, bus family members for prison visits and run local health clinics.
These Black Power activists — like their contemporary Black Lives Matter activists — identified racism as a structural issue. They viewed it as part of spectrum of social, political and economic inequality that made America less of a democracy.
As part of this, Black Power activists leveled the most enduring critiques of the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Carmichael was the leading black critic of Vietnam – until Muhammad Ali and then King came out against the war in the spring of 1967.
Carmichael and the Panthers paid a heavy price for their revolutionary ideologies. Illegal FBI surveillance of Carmichael included efforts to smear him as a CIA agent. The State Department and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House considered trying Carmichael for sedition and treason after his travels to Cuba, Vietnam, the Middle East, Guinea and Tanzania. The Panthers were themselves hounded by local authorities and targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a series of operations that led to violent arrests, and even death.
Yet the movement helped transform black racial identity domestically and abroad. Its influence resonated across popular culture. Consider James Brown’s 1968 anthem, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!”
The Black Power cultural arm challenged Western norms of beauty in art, dance, literature and music. Generations of poets, spoken-word artists and future hip- hop icons embraced a powerful and complex new identity.
Black Power reimagined American racial hierarchies by identifying white people — following the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin — as people of color, too. These black writers all explored aspects of what Du Bois called the “wages of whiteness” -- the way in which white identity rested on a dual foundation that oppressed blacks through slavery and Jim Crow and damaged whites through the lie of racial hierarchy and white supremacy.
The movement’s interrogation of racial identity forced a broad spectrum of groups to examine how America’s colonial past affected contemporary understanding of citizenship, freedom and slavery. A rainbow coalition of political radicals — Chicano, Native-American, Asian-American and white — drew from the movement to pursue their own political goals.
Critics often dismiss the Black Power movement as one of anger and violence, led by gun-toting militants more eager to destroy than build. Yet its legacy has proved more multifaceted and enduring.
In the time of Jim Crow America, even as King’s civil rights movement flourished, Black Power activists dared to speak raw truth to power. They unleashed political, social and economic furies that continue to this day.
The movement’s panoramic critique of institutional racism anticipated the Black Lives Matter protests. Today’s activists have also pushed the envelope in ways that have unsettled and disturbed the racial and political status quo.
They have argued, just as Black Power activists did 50 years ago, that demanding human rights for all means claiming audacious power bold enough to declare that black lives matter in a world that has too often asserted that they do not.