The first serious study of the diverse organizations associated with the resurgence of Black nationalism in the 1960s
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BLACK POWER IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
IntroductionA Retrospective Look at the Black Power Movement JUDSON L. JEFFRIES
The idea for this book was born in the frustration of teaching an upper-level course on African American politics. The course covers several important periods-the Civil Rights and Black Power movements are among these. Civil rights organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Urban League (UL), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have attracted a great deal of scholarly interest over the years. Scores of journal articles and several books have been written about each of them. As a result, I am able to assemble an array of materials for students to read.
Scholarly materials on the Black Power movement are not as abundant. One scholar has noted that American history survey texts published in the 1980s, for example, for both secondary-school and college audiences devoted on average between two and four paragraphs, or less than one page, to the Black Power movement. The more substantive work on this subject was published long before the movement ended. Consequently, there is no comprehensive scholarly analysis of the Black Power movement. The most impressive of the existing works belong to William L. VanDeBurg and to Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar. Van DeBurg's study focuses on the cultural dimensions of the movement, and Ogbar devotes some attention to a few of the least studied but important Black Power groups. However, neither of them discusses in depth the inner workings of any of the Black Power groups in particular, with the exception of the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and the League of Black Revolutionary Workers. Nor does either author explore in depth the more obscure Black Power groups that were sprinkled throughout the country.
The Black Power era is one of the most important, yet most understudied, periods in American history. Perhaps part of the reason for the dearth of scholarship on the subject may be that many whites and even some Blacks misunderstood the Black Power slogan. A survey of Detroit residents conducted in the late 1960s revealed that almost 60 percent of whites interviewed thought that Black Power was synonymous with violence, Black racism, and Black domination. Said one respondent, "The Negro wants to enslave the White man like he was enslaved 100 years ago." "Blacks won't be satisfied until they get complete control of our country by force if necessary," said another. Interestingly, some Black leaders viewed Black power as an extreme racist doctrine. Others saw it as separatist, following a similar path to that of earlier movements such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the National Movement for the Establishment of the 49th State, the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, and the National Union for People of African Descent.
Given these perceptions, it is no wonder that some have had difficulty answering questions such as, What was the Black Power movement? How did it differ from the modern Civil Rights Movement? When did it begin? Why did it arise? What did it accomplish? And when did it end?
The Black Power movement emerged during the tumultuous mid-1960s. At the time America was pregnant with the Black Power movement, many Blacks believed that the modern Civil Rights Movement was in its final stage as a viable vehicle for social, political, and economic change. Although some are of the opinion that the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were vastly different endeavors, one could argue that the latter was a logical extension of the former. Indeed, some have maintained that Willie Ricks, a civil rights activist, introduced the Black Power slogan during a march in 1966. Black luminaries such as Richard Wright, Paul Robeson, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had talked about Black Power in their writings and speeches even earlier than that.
Powell first mentioned Black Power at a Chicago rally in May 1965 and elaborated on it in his Howard University commencement speech the following year. He exclaimed that Black Power was "a working philosophy for a new breed of cats-tough, proud young Negroes who categorically refuse to compromise or negotiate any longer for their rights.... who reject the old-line established white financed, white controlled, white washed Negro leadership."
In 1968, Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) defined Black Power as "the ability of black people to politically get together and organize themselves so that they can speak from a position of strength rather than a position of weakness." He later attempted to capitalize and clarify the slogan even more, in particular in his book on the subject, coauthored with political scientist Charles V. Hamilton. It is apparent, however, that although the Black Power movement was a continuation of the struggle waged by its predecessor, it was distinct in many ways.
It is important to emphasize that Black Power, as an American phenomenon, cannot be isolated from race developments in other parts of the world. Indeed, well before its effective indigenous adoption, the idea of "Black power" had made a limited appearance in Black American vocabulary, but with reference to the question of global Black oppression. Wright recorded his impressions of his trip to the Gold Coast in his 1954 book Black Power and in doing so counseled Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah on the ways and means of making Black Power a reality. His advice to Nkrumah and other African leaders was that "the militarization of African life" would root out tribalism and superstition of "the fetish-ridden past." For Wright, the emergence of Black Power in Africa was a welcome sight, but only if it was the fruit of the progressive scientific and technological spirit that had energized the West, and not the reflection of a romantic belief in the African soul. Three years later, Paul Robeson declared:
Yes, I think a great deal of the power of black people in the world. That's why Africa means so much to me.... Yes, this black power moves me. Look at Jamaica. In a few years the white minority will be there on the sufferance of black men. If they're nice decent fellows they can stay.... If I could get a passport, I'd like to go to Ghana or Jamaica just to sit for a few days and observe this black power.
Whether inside or outside the United States, Black Powerites looked to a different group of heroes and mentors for theoretical and practical guidance than did their civil rights compatriots. Some in the leadership ranks of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly those associated with the SCLC and CORE, studied Ghandi's concept of nonviolence, Henry David Thoreau's writings on civil disobedience, and Walter Rauschenbusch's writings on the role of the church in society.
Leaders within the Black Power movement, on the other hand, saw themselves as the heirs to Malcolm X first and foremost. For years, Malcolm had urged Blacks to take a more proactive stance against racism. The nonviolent tactics of Dr. Martin L. King Jr. were not a viable option for Black people, argued Malcolm. From his standpoint, it was not honorable to turn the other cheek in the face of white violence, but instead foolish. As far as Malcolm was concerned, any Black leader who would place women and children in a situation where they would be beaten and trampled by police on horseback was not a champion of Black people, but a traitor to Blacks. No Black was more scornful than he of the Civil Rights Movement and its goal of integration. Malcolm viewed integration as a surrender to white supremacy, for its aims of total assimilation into white society implied that African Americans had little worth preserving.
Unlike many leaders, Malcolm X did not coddle his followers; to the contrary, he often ridiculed them without being contemptuous of their limitations. Case in point: when whites bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Malcolm had this to say to a Black audience: "As long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people, but when it comes to seeing your own church bombed and little black girls murdered, you haven't got any blood."
Malcolm's candid and fiery rhetoric appealed to many urban Blacks. Not surprisingly, Malcolm X's autobiography was devoured by many Black Power advocates. They also read Robert F. Williams's Negro with Guns. Williams was the head of a local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina, but his politics and style were more confrontational than those of the typical NAACPer. Indeed, his posture ultimately led to his ouster from the organization. Nevertheless, his book resonated with many Black Powerites. Nat Turner, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Touré, and Touissant L'Overture were also held in high regard. As one might expect,
Black Power advocates were inspired by the struggle for African independence. Those who attempted to overthrow the oppressor were admired for, among other things, their bravery and courage in the face of formidable odds. Black Powerites read how Kwame Nkrumah took over Ghana in 1957 and how the Congo won full independence in 1960. Algeria, Gambia, Kenya, and Zambia followed suit within the next five years. These developments gave Black Power advocates a reason to believe that a revolution could be had in America. Some within the Black Power movement openly called for armed revolution. This development caught many whites and some Blacks by surprise. Yet the call for armed Black revolution was hardly new. In 1843, Henry Highland Garnet, a Presbyterian minister, delivered a speech in Buffalo, New York, to a group called the National Negro Committee. His speech, "Call to Rebellion," included the exhortation "Let your motto be resistance! Resistance! Resistance! No oppressed people have ever secured their liberty without resistance."
For many Black Powerites, Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth was considered a blueprint for revolution in America. Though Fanon explicitly disavowed "negritude" as the basis for a revolutionary nationalism, Black Powerites hailed him as a prophet because The Wretched of the Earth distilled the lessons of the Algerian war for anticolonial movements everywhere. In terms of organization building, Marcus Garvey's UNIA served as a model for many Black Power advocates.
As I mentioned in a previous work, the Black Power movement permeated several aspects of American life, including sports, music, higher education, and culture. Black activists at predominantly white campuses, from Harvard to the University of California, Berkeley, and all points in between, established Black student unions and demanded Black Studies programs, more Black faculty, and proactive recruitment and admissions policies.
The Black music industry, with its roots in gospel and rhythm and blues, in some quarters became nationalist in an extraordinary way. Songs like James Brown's "I'm Black and I'm Proud," the Temptations' "Message to a Black Man," and the Impressions' "We're a Winner" established a distinctive sound that became the preferred expression for a generation of politically conscious Blacks. In spring 1966, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States Army because of his religious beliefs. As a result, he was stripped of the heavyweight title. That same year, for the first time a college basketball team from Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso) started five Black players, and the team defeated an all-white University of Kentucky squad and their bigoted coach, Adolph Rupp, for the Division I NCAA championship. That fall, Howard University students elected as homecoming queen a woman who ran on a Black Power platform and wore the emerging Afro hairstyle in defiance of the school's prevailing white American look and worldview. Negroes began to refer to themselves as Black. And being Black was not just about one's skin color or race, but more important one's state of mind. Advocates of Black Power called on Black people to think Black.
By 1968 the Black Power movement was in full gear. Thousands of Blacks all over the country took to the streets in response to the killing of Dr. King. Months later, Black athletes staged protests at the Olympic games in Mexico City as a way of bringing attention to the plight of African Americans in the United States.
Like most other political/social movements, several factors signaled the rise of the Black Power movement. First, there was a high degree of social distress within the African American community. One example of this distress was Blacks' insecurity about law enforcement's reluctance to protect them from white violence. Blacks saw the television footage or heard about the shooting of civil rights activist James Meredith while he staged his one-man "March Against Fear in Mississippi." Three years earlier, in 1963, under the cover of darkness a white sniper took the life of Jackson, Mississippi, NAACP leader Medgar Evers. That same year, whites bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and thereby reinforcing what many Blacks had already known-that many whites had a total disregard for Black life.
Second, there was a sense of efficacy among potential Black Powerites. They believed that they could make a difference because Malcolm X had told them so. Malcolm implored Blacks to protect themselves and their families, to think for themselves, and to build their own institutions. Furthermore, the moderate success of the Civil Rights Movement resulted in raised expectations and growing dissatisfaction. Expectations were raised because the dismantling of segregation of public accommodations and the securing of the right to vote demonstrated that Blacks were able to influence government decision making. Interestingly, dissatisfaction with the rate of change increased concomitantly with the growing belief that change was possible. Consequently, large numbers of less patient activists demanded more and faster results based on the perception that the majority of poor African Americans did not reap the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement.
Third, Black America was conducive to such a movement. For instance, at the March on Washington in 1963, SNCC activist John Lewis delivered a poignant speech that criticized the inaction of the Kennedy administration in the area of civil rights. At one point during his speech Lewis cried: "We are tired of being beaten up by policemen. We're tired of having our people locked up in jail. And you holler, 'Be patient.' We want our freedom and we want it now. We want the revolution of 1776 completed-in the Mississippi Delta, Southwest Georgia, the Black Belt of Alabama, and in Harlem and Detroit."
Lewis declared, "this revolution is a serious one," which the president "is trying to take out of the streets and put into the courts." He apostrophized the president, Congress, and fellow citizens: "The Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom and there won't be a cooling-off period." Lewis's words struck a chord with many of those who felt that a new day was dawning-one when Blacks would rise up en masse and take their freedom. The record shows that Lewis's speech was met with an "explosion of applause and shouts."
Fourth, by the following year it was made clear to Blacks for the world to see (if it had not already been obvious) that many so-called allies of the Black movement at the federal level were content to sit on their hands rather than publicly declare their support for Black equality. This was never more evident than in the failure of the Democratic Party to seat the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at its 1964 convention. For some Blacks this denial of recognition tarnished the image of mainstream white liberalism beyond repair.
Excerpted from BLACK POWER IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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