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Sacred FireIn the late 1960s, as the struggle for civil rights—both between blacks and the nation and within the civil rights organizations themselves—escalated, activist Stokely Carmichael uttered a rallying cry that would signal a significant shift in the philosophy and tactics of some black groups involved in the struggle. Carmichael was the newly elected chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and just released from jail for activities surrounding James Meredith's march. In announcing the expulsion of all whites from the SNCC, Carmichael declared, "The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppn' us is to take over.... We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is 'Black Power!'"
That was in 1966. A year later, Carmichael, together with political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, coauthored the book Black Power, which presented what at the time was thought to be the definitive statement of a new "racial philosophy" and attempted to formulate a new approach that would enable blacks to solve the problems associated with their oppression on their own, with-out relying on the generosity and guidance of whites. Black Power was not, at least in theory, designed as a threat to white people. It was, in a sense, merely the latest incarnation of Booker T. Washington's gospel of self-help. Black Power was designed to allow black people, through their own institutions and organizations, to achieve economic and political liberation. The phrase itself was a brilliant use of language: the two short, punchy words together formed a vision of a radically different future for black people, who more often than not found themselves disenfranchised and on the wrong end of policemen's swinging clubs.
The authors were also internationalist in their view: ... . Black Power means that black people see themselves as part of a new force, sometimes called the 'Third World'; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggles around the world. We must hook up with these struggles." In the book's eight essays, Carmichael and Hamilton critique the political significance of various existing institutions with a consistent eye to their relevance to black struggle.
Black Power was one of the clearest manifestations of the movement's change of direction in the late 1960s. The change was significant: the language of militant black liberation soon replaced, and even discredited for a time, the language of nonviolent protests. While the value of that transformation is still being debated, the influence, and power, of Carmichael's hard-charging polemic is still being felt.