Whatever happened To Black Power?

In this essay, John Wight talks about Black Power and the leaders who led it in the 60’s. They had huge impact but now “the very idea of Black liberation, would appear to be extinct.”

What happened? I think it was a lot of things. Some Blacks did move into the middle class (and higher, look at Oprah.) Rage does get tempered when one’s living conditions demonstrably improve. This hardly happened to all Blacks, but hey, back in the 60’s who would have thought that, four decades later,there would be Black billionaires and quite probably a Black president. No one, that’s who. But for too many, conditions seem scarcely improved. Just look at New Orleans and Katrina.

Saul Alinksy was right when, in the 60’s, he said it was idiocy for the Panthers to say all power grows out of the barrel of a gun when the other side has all the guns. If you yell “Off the pigs” long enough, law enforcement will probably take you way more seriously than you might have supposed.

The Black Power movement had a major influence on the political world at large, one that is still echoing. They brought millions to radical political consciousness, and for a while, the whole world was watching. Their legacy is still with us.

Whatever happened To Black Power?

When analyzing and comparing the ferment of the US political landscape during the sixties and seventies, the years of the anti-Vietnam war and Black civil rights movements, to the political landscape in the US today, perhaps the most striking thing is the absence of Black militant voices calling not only for integration into the political system but a change in the system itself.

At certain periods of the sixties and seventies it seemed as if the US was on the verge of a social explosion which threatened to overturn and bring down at long last a white establishment which had held the levers of economic and political power since the nation was founded.

A Black liberation movement arose in tandem with the civil rights and antiwar movements, comprising those who believed that the non-violent and reformist civil rights movement, led by Dr Martin Luther King, would effect no meaningful social change in the plight of America’s Black population, which at that time numbered around 22 million (11 percent of the population). Blacks occupied the bottom rung of the economic ladder, as they had done since slavery was formally abolished in 1865; they comprised the majority of the nation’s prison population, occupied the worst housing, comprised the lowest number of college graduates, had the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality – in general scored worst in every social indicator.

Today, in the year 2008, the Black population of the United States is around 35 million (13 percent of the population). Blacks occupy the bottom rung of the economic ladder, as they have done since slavery was formally abolished in 1865; they comprise the majority of the nation’s prison population, occupy the worst housing, comprise the lowest number of college graduates, have the lowest life expectancy, the highest rate of infant mortality – in general Blacks in America today score worst in every social indicator (The Poor In Developed Countries – 2007).

Yet, whilst the social conditions of Blacks in America remains virtually the same today as a generation ago, no militant Black movement has grown in response. In fact, to all intents and purposes the Black liberation movement, indeed the very idea of Black liberation, would appear to be extinct.

Looking back, that generation of young Black militant leaders who blazed a trail across America’s political and social landscape in the sixties and seventies had a major impact, one so powerful that it transcended the confines of America and resonated globally. Men and women like Malcolm X; Kwame Toure (Stokley Carmichael); Huey Newton; Fred Hampton; Bobby Seale; George Jackson; and Angela Davis gave voice to the indignity, injustice, and despair suffered by generation after generation of Black men and women, who despite enjoying equal rights under the law continued to be treated as unwelcome guests at the lavish banquet that was US economic prosperity. Not for them words of conciliation and reform; not for them appeals to white liberal opinion for succor. No, these men and women asserted that to be Black was to be equal, and in fact more than equal given the history of slavery, oppression and indignity suffered at the hands of a system racist to the very last stone of every grand building and monument in every American town and city.

Think of Malcolm X and his courageous stand against the government of the day, exposing its hypocrisy and venality. In speech after speech he verbally uprooted the moral foundations upon which the nation’s institutions were built. In his Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964, he said:

“No, I”m not an American. I”m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanization. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I”m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-waver – no, not I. I”m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don”t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

Any victim of Hurricane Katrina, any young Black man currently incarcerated in within America’s vast prison network, any Black family struggling to keep body and soul together in the housing projects today would read this or any of Malcolm’s speeches and be hard pressed to disagree with his words given their own experiences of America in the 21st century.

Kwame Toure (Stokley Carmichael) rose to prominence in the mid-sixties as a militant activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This was a movement that spread through college and university campuses across the United States demanding civil rights. Carmichael left SNCC in 1967 and joined the Black Panther Party, an avowedly Black nationalist organization. He was made honorary prime minister of the Panthers in 1968. He became a fierce critic of the Vietnam War and soon began to draw links between the oppression suffered by Blacks in America and the anti-colonial struggles being waged throughout the developing world. He was an admirer and supporter of the Cuban revolution, and he sought to internationalize the struggle for Black liberation in the US with struggles against US and Western colonialism taking place around the globe. In this role he traveled extensively, visiting revolutionary leaders in Africa, North Vietnam, Cuba, and China, offering solidarity and receiving the same against what he viewed as a common enemy – US imperialism.

He moved to Africa in 1969, where he became an aide to the then Guinean prime minister, Sekou Toure, and a staunch supporter of exiled Ghanian President, Kwame Nkrumah. It was in honour of both men that he changed his name to Kwame Toure. During his African years, Toure was an ardent supporter of the Pan-Africanist movement, which was Marxist in orientation, and it was a cause he espoused right up until the time of his death in 1998.

It was Carmichael, as he was known then, who first coined the phrase “Black Power”. In a later speech, he explained what he meant.

“It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”

The Black Panther Party which Stokley Carmichael joined in 1967 was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966. Their aim was to build an organization to promote civil rights and self defence against the police, who they viewed as an occupying force intent on ruling Black communities through fear and intimidation. The Panthers devised a series of immediate demands which became known as their Ten-Point Program. A progressive manifesto designed to deepen the consciousness of the poor and the dispossessed in poor Black housing projects across the United States, its demands included land, bread, housing, clothing, justice, and equality for America’s blacks. But it was the seventh point in their program, demanding an end to police brutality and calling for Black people to arm themselves in self defence against the police in their own communities that brought them to national and international attention. In his article, In Defense of Self Defense, written in 1970, Newton revealed the theoretical depth which made him a threat to the status quo.

“Men were not created to obey laws. Laws are created to obey men. They are established by men and should serve men. The laws and rules which officials inflict upon poor people prevent them from functioning harmoniously.”

In the same article, he writes:

“Penned up in the ghettos of America, surrounded by his factories and all the physical components of his economic system, we have been made into the “wretched of the earth,” relegated to the position of spectators while the White racists run their international con game on the suffering peoples. We have been brainwashed to believe that we are powerless and that there is nothing we can do for ourselves to bring about a speedy liberation for our people.”

Though the Panthers originally began as a Black nationalist movement, their doctrine and their politics evolved in line with the wave of revolutionary and anti-colonial struggles taking place throughout the developing world, and by the early seventies Newton and the Black Panther Party were calling themselves Marxists. Newton wrote extensively and was an important thinker, but the Panthers are best known for their courage in daring to challenge the police in Black communities. This along with their breakfast clubs and other community programs earned them the respect and affection of the people living in those communities.

In 1968 the then director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, described the Panthers as, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and using COINTELPRO, the program devised by the FBI in the sixties to investigate and destroy dissident organizations within the United States, the Bureau set about effecting their destruction with gusto. This campaign reached its peak with the murder of leading Panther, Fred Hampton, in his bed in Chicago in 1969. However, the Panthers were able to continue, and in 1973 Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and came second of nine candidates with 43,170 votes.

As for Huey Newton, thinker, scholar and revolutionary leader, he met a violent end on the streets of Oakland in 1989, when he was shot and killed. An attempt to smear Huey Newton’s name and legacy was undertaken by the FBI in the aftermath of his death. It is perhaps in this attempt that we get a full measure of Newton’s impact and the threat which both he and the organization he co-founded posed. By confronting police brutality, by organizing social programs to help the poor, the Panthers helped to radicalize a generation of Black youth.

Soledad Brother, George Jackson, joined the Black Panther Party whilst in prison. He”d been sentenced to one year to life for the theft of $70 from a gas station at the age of 18. It was while in prison that Jackson was radicalized. A book of his prison letters, Soledad Brother, was published in 1970 to international acclaim. The anger, passion, humanity, and intellectual depth contained in his letters, written over a period of six years, reveal a young man who had the potential to become a radical thinker of the first rank. A letter to his mother in 1968 reveals the despair of incarceration. He writes:

“Try to remember how you felt at the most depressing moment of your life, the moment of your deepest dejection. You no doubt have had many. That is how I feel all the time, no matter what my level of consciousness may be – asleep, awake, in-between.”

In a letter written in 1970, Jackson analyzed the economic and social condition of Blacks in America.

“The new slavery, the modern variety of chattel slavery updated to disguise itself, places the victim in a factory or in the case of most Blacks in support roles inside and around the factory system (service trades), working for a wage. However, if work cannot be found in or around the factory complex, today’s neoslavery does not allow even for a modicum of food and shelter. You are free – to starve.”

Further on in the same letter, he writes:

“I am an extremist. I call for extreme measures to solve extreme problems….The entire colonial world is watching the Blacks inside the U.S., wondering and waiting for us to come to our senses….We are on the inside. We are the only ones (besides the very small white minority left) who can get at the monster’s heart without subjecting the world to nuclear fire. We have a momentous historical role to act out if we will.”

Soledad Brother is not so much a compilation of letters as a scream from the bowels of the American “injustice” system, a call to action and the assertion by a young man of his humanity in the face of the inhumanity and barbarity suffered by his people. George Jackson died in prison in 1971 of gunshot wounds after prison guards fired on prisoners during an uprising in the yard. Allegations that Jackson was purposely assassinated have never been satisfactorily refuted.

The concept of Black Power once inspired a significant section of the Black youth of America, producing great thinkers and courageous leaders such as those described. But there were others too – in particular from the world of sports. A young Muhammad Ali, for example, dared stand up and defy the establishment in refusing to be drafted for Vietnam with the immortal words, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” In so doing he refused to go the same way as other Black sportsmen and celebrities, forever grateful to the establishment for allowing them to escape poverty and the degradation of Jim Crow and unwittingly becoming patsies of the system, held up as false proof that no racial barriers existed in America.

During the Mexico Olympics of 1968, two Black American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the clenched fist, Black Power salute during the medals ceremony. It was a gesture of defiance and militancy that shocked and shook the world. And while it may have destroyed any future they might have had in their home country as athletes, it assured them of something far more valuable and long lasting – a proud place in the history of struggle waged by their people against the inequality, racism, and oppression which so defined their existence.

Now, looking back at this period of American history, to when young Black men and women rose up against the warmongers and plutocrats – not only responsible for the devastation of their communities at home but who were also engaged in the destruction of countries and cultures abroad – we are forced to ask the question: Where is their like today?

After all, the economic and social oppression suffered back then by Blacks in America continues. If anyone was in any doubt of that they only need to be reminded of Hurricane Katrina – an irrefutable example of the contempt in which poor Blacks are held in the US by the government and the corporate elite which controls the country.

Yet where were the Black voices raised in anger in response? Where were the Black athletes, men and women of the substance of a young Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos? Where were the militant Black voices? Has the concept of Black Power come to be embodied in the super-capitalism promoted by the gangsta-rap, bling culture? Surely the hopes of Black people in America today don”t depend solely on the “fortunes” of Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey?

Perhaps, and fittingly, the last word should go to Soledad Brother, George Jackson:

“The people who run this country will never let us succeed to power. Everything in history that was ever of value was taken by force. We must organize our thoughts, get behind the revolutionary vanguard….We must fall on our enemies, the enemies of all righteousness, with a ruthless relentless will to win! History sweeps on, we must not let is escape our influence this time!”

John Wight
Edinburgh, Scotland

  • DJ

    “the social conditions of Blacks in America remains virtually the same today as a generation ago…”

    Whoa, there! I’d agree that there’s still much improvement to be made. It makes me sick that my black friends’ teenaged boys, even the A students among them, are made to lie face down in their own driveway at the whim of the LAPD just because of their color. (Black cops are at least as likely to demand this as white cops, BTW.)

    But you seem to suggest that there’s been no improvement at all. I strongly disagree. These days, when an African American gets abused by the cops, it often makes headline news– and because of that, it happens less often than it used to. And if there’s a lynching in the South (as there has been from time to time over the years) it creates an uproar. Contrast this with conditions in the 1960s and 1970s, even after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and I think you’ll find that social conditions have changed A LOT.

  • As we’ve lost our sense of unity, so, too, has our power been diminished . . .

    I speak to this on the press page of . . .

    If we can come together, as a people, we can uplift our children, alter our future, and regain our legacy on this planet . . .

    If not, we are doomed . . .

    R. Lee Gordon /

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