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Rethinking the Black Power Movement

Komozi Woodard – Sarah Lawrence College

Speaking for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in June 1966, Stokely Carmichael introduced the new agitation slogan: Black Power. The SNCC challenged a new generation of leadership to realize self-determination, self-respect, and self-defense for black America by calling for broad political and social experimentation with black liberation and political autonomy. As Harry Haywood wrote in Black Bolshevik, “The emergence of Black Power as a mass slogan signaled a fundamental turning point in the modern Afro-American liberation struggle, carrying it to the threshold of a new phase. It marked a basic shift in content and direction of the movement, from civil rights to national liberation, with a corresponding realignment of social forces." In addition, the Black Power movement was a global cultural and political phenomenon; and the names and politics of some of the groups in the United States—such as the Congress of African People or the Republic of New Afrika—suggested its international dimensions.


Amiri Baraka and Internationalism

Alongside SNCC, another important group was produced by the fusion of Black Power conferences and a Black Arts movement: the Congress of African People, led by poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. It was not accidental that black artists like Baraka came to leadership in Black Power because the foundations of the movement were supported by “black” culture and consciousness, essentially a blues matrix; Baraka’s first book was Blues People, and many subsequent Black Power leaders read the 1963 publication in one sitting.

Born Leroi Jones in 1934, Amiri Baraka came of age during the formative years of Third World independence, the decade between the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the 1959 Cuban Revolution. These international developments left an indelible mark on his Black Power nationalism.

Black Power radicals like Baraka supported not only Castro’s Cuban Revolution but also the pan-African socialist experiments in Ghana designed by Kwame Nkrumah; and his generation identified with such writers as Aimé Césaire in Martinique and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in Kenya. They sought the truth of black liberation in the pages of Frantz Fanon’s writings, from Black Skin, White Masks’s theory of identity crisis to The Wretched of the Earth’s jeremiad against the betrayal of the African bourgeoisie.

In 1961 when Baraka was arrested at the United Nations, protesting the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the premier of the Congo, the African Americans actively supporting African liberation represented only a handful of the activists inspired by the independence movements in such African nations as the Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and Guinea. However, by 1970 the efforts by Black Power nationalists to support African liberation reflected the sentiments of millions of African Americans who grew up during the triumph of freedom movements from Tanganyika to Algeria.

By 1970 the radical wing of the Black Power movement, influenced by Mao and the Chinese Revolution, suggested that the struggle for black liberation would unfold in stages: the first stage was national liberation, and the second stage was social transformation, involving some form of socialism. While many of those militants argued that internal colonialism was the paradigm for the national movement, the international dimensions of their politics became more pronounced as Baraka rose to leadership in the national black political arena. His wing of the movement suggested three anti-colonial African models for Black Power politics, combining national liberation and socialism: Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde), which was leading the fight against Portuguese colonialism in the West African territories of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands; in West Africa, Sékou Touré’s Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG) , which had led a successful radical movement against French colonialism in the 1950s; and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which led its independence initiative in East Africa.

The road traveled by Nyerere’s TANU in Tanganyika had been peaceful; however, the path taken by revolutionaries in Zanzibar and Algeria was bloody. By the 1970s most of the liberation movements in Africa were involved in some phase of armed warfare against white colonialism. At that time, Black Power nationalists led a determined national community in the support of African liberation movements, targeting South African domination in South-West Africa (Namibia); Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau; as well as white minority rule in both Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa. By 1975 these African liberation movements had defeated Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, and subdued white minority rule in Zimbabwe. Inspired by African ideals of nation building and liberation, the central theme of Baraka's Black Power politics became black self-determination.

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New Organizations

The Black Power movement was articulated in the cultural, political, and economic programs proposed and developed not only by such vehicles as the Black Arts movement but also the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, the US Organization, the Black Women’s United Front, the Republic of New Afrika, the Revolutionary Action Movement, the National Welfare Rights Organization, the Nation of Islam, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Young Lords Party, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Together, these cultural and political formations galvanized millions of black people in the broadest movement in African-American history: high school and college youth organized black student unions; professors and educators created Black Studies programs; athletes mobilized protests against poverty and racism; workers fashioned militant unions; welfare mothers demanded power and dignity; young ministers preached black theology; soldiers resisted army discipline; and during prison uprisings such as Attica, politically conscious inmates saluted Malcolm X and George Jackson.

The prison rebellions, ghetto uprisings, campus unrest, and an explosive African- American identity produced that new generation of Black Power organizations and leadership. The fusion between these leaders, organizations, and the intense consciousness of both African-American nationality and racial oppression became incredibly powerful in the context of the black urban uprisings of the 1960s. The hundreds of ghetto revolts of the 1960s marked a major turning point in the Black Revolt.

During the first wave of unrest in the 1960s, 329 major rebellions unfolded in 257 different cities; after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, there were another two hundred uprisings in 172 cities. In that context, wave after wave of black youth demanding local autonomy were galvanized by the Black Power slogan. Indeed, sociologist Manuel Castells notes that Black Power “was not just a slogan. It was the practice of an excluded community that transformed the walls of its prison into the boundaries of its free city.” A third wave of youthful activists joined the Black Revolt following five hundred racial confrontations in 1969. They were the most violent expressions of ethnic conflicts that shaped black consciousness and spread the demand for African-American self-determination.

As the uprisings spread from city to city and country to country, a new generation of Black Power organizations developed in their wake. Each developed a distinct perspective about the meaning of Black Power, and each tested the effectiveness of its approach to black liberation. Despite their differences, at the outset they shared some fundamentals, and their political trajectories established a common pattern. Each organization claimed to be the true heir of Malcolm X; each concluded that Black America suffered as an internal colony of the United States; and each demanded black self-determination. Furthermore, many of these groups embraced Black Nationalism and later incorporated significant elements of Marxism.

In the aftermath of the August 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, two rival political styles were generated in California: the US Organization and the Black Panther Party. In Los Angeles Maulana Karenga, formerly the young student activist Ronald Everett, benefited from the phenomenal spread of the Black Arts movement as he developed “cultural nationalism” as the influential political style of the US Organization. Born in Maryland, Karenga and his family migrated during his youth to California, where he took up African Studies and learned several languages, including Kiswahili, at the University of California, earning a master’s degree in political science. He met Malcolm X in Los Angeles and was deeply influenced by his politics of black liberation. After Malcolm X’s assassination and the Watts uprisings, Karenga founded the US Organization on September 7, 1965. It insisted that African Americans formed a cultural nation in need of a black cultural revolution as well as Black Power. Influenced by the political ideology and style of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, Karenga’s organization was named US “as opposed to them.” With its emphasis on self-determination and self-reliance in black liberation, the designation US has a connotation similar to the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin, meaning ourselves alone, the battle cry of the 1916 Easter Rising.

Early in the development of US Organization, Karenga proposed that African Americans study Swahili. Impressed by Malcolm X’s ethical reconstruction in the Nation of Islam, Karenga emphasized the need for a black cultural revolution guiding Black America toward seven principles (Nguzo Saba): black unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, the purpose of nation building, creativity, and faith in the ultimate correctness and victory of black liberation.

As part of his cultural program, Karenga developed a popular African-American holiday, Kwanzaa, to teach the seven principles during a week-long celebration of black heritage. Today Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions of African Americans. As part of its political program the US Organization organized the Black Congress, an important united front group, embracing many of the new militant organizations in Los Angeles. Maulana Karenga’s influence spread quickly because of his role in the organization of the National Black Power Conferences between 1966 and 1969. Finally, as part of the US Organization ideological program, Karenga wrote a doctrine for the new Black Nationalism, which he called Kawaida, meaning “tradition and reason.”

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The Black Panthers

Karenga met Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in a study circle in the early 1960s. While the US Organization’s cultural nationalism emerged in Los Angeles, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale developed revolutionary nationalism as the forceful political style of the Black Panther Party in Oakland. Actually, Newton and Seale were not the first Black Panthers; there were earlier groups organized by the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in the aftermath of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voting rights experiment in Lowndes County, Alabama, led by Stokely Carmichael.

In 1965, one year before the Black Power slogan emerged, the independent Lowndes County Freedom Organization stood up to white terror in the Deep South, using a black panther to symbolize its defiance. A number of black activists from northern cities provided material support for self-defense to the Lowndes County Black Panthers and asked Stokely Carmichael for permission to form Black Panther organizations in their urban centers. Consequently, Black Panthers developed in New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco. In New York, alongside Eddie Ellis, Ted Wilson, Donald Washington, and Walter Ricks, one of the leaders of the Harlem Panthers was Larry Neal, a cofounder of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School.

In July 1966, with the public endorsement of Stokely Carmichael, the Harlem Party established headquarters at 2409 Seventh Avenue, near 140th Street, and a Malcolm X Liberation School. By September 1966 twelve Panthers were arrested in Harlem during a school boycott, their first direct-action campaign. The New York Times estimated their membership at one hundred. In San Francisco, the Black Panthers were in communication with Robert F. Williams, the exiled leader of RAM, in Cuba.

Between the Watts uprising in August 1965 and San Francisco unrest in September 1966, Newton and Seale began discussing the need for a new kind of organization of their own in Oakland; those exchanges resulted in the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in October 1966. Although Black Panther organizations emerged in other cities before the Oakland Panthers, the revolutionary grassroots party established by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale quickly developed a militant stance that propelled its members into the forefront of the Black Revolt. The definitive political style of the legendary Oakland Black Panther Party soon eclipsed the earlier Panthers in New York and San Francisco, expanding to a base of more than sixty cities with a membership of more than two thousand people.

Instead of a new value system like the US Organization, the Black Panthers wrote a ten-point program demanding an end to police brutality and capitalist exploitation as well as the right to full employment, decent housing, meaningful education, military exemption, and black self-determination. Its program explained that the “major political objective” was “a United Nations–supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the Black colony in which only Black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of Black people as to their national destiny.” Eventually, the debate between Karenga’s “cultural nationalism” and Newton’s “revolutionary nationalism” became a major feature of the ideological struggle over the direction of the Black Power movement.

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Conferences and Conventions

Parallel processes unfolded following the 1967 Detroit Rebellion; in 1968 the Republic of New Afrika and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers emerged. The Republic of New Afrika (RNA), led by Imari Abubakari Obadele, demanded land to establish an African-American nation in the Deep South.

In contrast to the RNA, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers developed into perhaps the most influential black Marxist organization. The league was the culmination of several black revolutionary union insurgencies, particularly in the auto industry, for instance, the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM) and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). In the 1970s some of the more radical members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers founded a Marxist-Leninist organization, the Black Workers Congress (BWC), declaring that African Americans were an oppressed nation in the Black Belt South and demanding the right of self-determination. Thus, in the aftermath of the urban uprisings a new generation of Black Power organizations developed a radical leadership, demanding black self-determination and generating four principal political styles: Marxism, revolutionary nationalism, territorial nationalism, and cultural nationalism.

Step by step the Black Power Conferences grew stronger in numbers and in political development. The Black Power Conferences began as a small affair called together by Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell, a veteran of the Harlem Job Boycotts of the 1940s. When the youthful Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown called for Black Power, Congressman Powell tried to define it politically; he convened a Black Power Conference in Washington, D.C., alongside his congressional aide Chuck Stone as well as the youthful militant Maulana Karenga of the Los Angeles US Organization. The second conference was a mass summit meeting held in the aftermath of one of the worst black uprisings in American history, the July 1967 Newark uprising.

A round of 1967 uprisings from Newark to Detroit rocked the country and recast Black Power beyond the electoral realm into a debate about reform or revolution. Severely beaten in that uprising, the Newark poet Amiri Baraka emerged as a political leader at that Black Power meeting alongside Rap Brown and Maulana Karenga. In the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968, thousands of militants and activists poured into the Philadelphia Black Power Conference, where internationalism and anti–Vietnam War positions dominated the movement’s shift to the Left. However, the 1969 Black Power Conference was sabotaged by the Bermuda government’s banning of Black Power leaders such as Stokely Carmichael who were scheduled to speak at the Caribbean summit meeting.

At that point, with Baraka’s political star rising at the head of the Newark Black Power, militants and pan-Africanists from around the United States and Canada rallied in 1970 in Atlanta, Georgia, to constitute a national federation of Black Power and pan-African organizations, the Congress of African People (CAP.) The CAP was produced by the forces that united to break the executive color bar in a major northeastern city by organizing the election of the first black mayor at that level. That led to a phenomenal movement for black political power.

With that organizational apparatus in place and a national platform, CAP worked with a number of political forces to hold, in quick succession, the March 1972 Gary Convention, the May 1972 African Liberation Day, and the September 1972 San Diego Congress of African People summit meeting. Featuring C. L. R. James as its keynote speaker, Baraka’s San Diego CAP summit put socialism on the Black Power agenda. With that momentum, Baraka became the chair of the Congress of African People and the general-secretary of the National Black Political Assembly produced by the Gary Convention. Another important layer of that momentum and infrastructure was the maturing Black Arts movement that was in the vanguard of black consciousness and the youth movement, with hundreds of cultural centers.

The Gary Convention marked the zenith of the Black Power movement. Most of the important strands of the Black Power movement were represented by delegates and by their components of the political platform, the National Black Political Agenda. For example, the National Welfare Rights Organization drafted the important $10,000 minimum income demands; the Black Panther Party and other self-defense groups influenced the anti-police brutality stance, and so forth.

By 1972 there was an impressive convergence of radical Black Power movements in many parts of the world, including a number of non-African groups in the Middle East and elsewhere who rallied as oppressed peoples under the rebellious banner of “Black Power.” The momentum was so strong that SNCC and other groups called for and began to organize a Sixth Pan-African Congress to follow the path of the historic Fifth Pan-African Congress of 1945 in Manchester that inspired the African independence movement. They hoped that summit meeting would coordinate a global fight against racism and imperialism.

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It was precisely at that zenith when things began to fall apart for the unified momentum of the Black Power movement. From Africa to the Caribbean and the United States, the broad united front around the demand for black self-determination won the initial battles for home rule only to be confronted with a new question: who rules at home? Cleavages in black communities exploded around emerging class and gender conflicts as early victories proved disappointing. In some cases, movement activists charged middle-class betrayal; in other cases, they shouted against neo-colonialism. But everywhere, the discussions and debates turned to an analysis of the rise of different class interests in the black world: how would they explain it? In response, the youthful movement leadership responded at times defensively, at times immaturely, at times violently, at times rigidly, at times quixotically, at times angrily; tragically, however, it was only on rare occasions that it responded very wisely to the rising challenges of race, class, and gender.

To make matters worse, lost in quick succession were most of the veteran theoretical leaders who had demonstrated some prowess in race and class analysis in the black world. Frantz Fanon died in the hospital. Amílcar Cabral, who insisted on a clearer understanding of theory and ideology, was assassinated in early 1973 after he returned from the United States, where he had given the Black Power movement new confidence in moving to the Left without losing its bearings. Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Amílcar Cabral also proved irreplaceable.

In the profound ideological vacuum, the Black Power movement became a plaything in the hands of professional local, national, and special police forces as well as national and international counterintelligence agencies. Groups were pitted against one another in small deadly wars. Unknowingly at the behest of the police and the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the Black Panther Party and the US Organization effectively paralyzed each other. Soon thereafter Karenga was imprisoned.

In many cases, the local police forces simply assassinated the most promising young Black Panther leaders, such as Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in a predawn raid, killing them as they slept. Panther headquarters from Los Angeles to Des Moines to Philadelphia were assaulted by the police forces. In Philadelphia, scores of Panthers were stripped naked and paraded through the streets at gunpoint. Mumia Abu-Jamal was framed and imprisoned for murder in Philadelphia; similarly, Assata Shakur was shot and imprisoned in New Jersey by the state police. In Guyana, Professor Walter Rodney was blown up with a car bomb. Those were well-planned, awesome, and irreparable setbacks. In response, many groups became even more brittle in their political doctrines at a moment when political and tactical maneuvering was required to sustain the movement.

At the May 1974 African Liberation Day debate in Washington, D.C., the remaining radical leaders sought a new direction for the struggle: Which Way Black Liberation? Instead of finding consensus, they divided into two hostile camps professing their faith under the banners of Black Nationalism and Marxism-Leninism. In turn, those hostile camps took the poisonous debate into the long-awaited Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania, where the political camps further divided, adding another level of complicated division—one between the African states and the nonstate liberation movements.

Nonetheless, strong winds of change in the black world were also edging the movement to the Left. The Portuguese colonial empire in Africa crumbled under the dual pressures of African liberation movements, on the one hand, and the 1974 Portuguese Revolution, on the other. Sadly, a number of American radicals saw that revolutionary development, coupled with the defeat of America in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as a signal that revolution was possible immediately in the United States as well. That was a gross, immature, and lethal miscalculation, the illusion that “revolution was just around the corner.” Furthermore, in their divisive attempts to form a Russian-style revolutionary party, a number of the Black Power groups paralyzed or unraveled key national organizations that controlled vital links in a national political and communications infrastructure.

Black Studies programs crumbled during “ideological debates.” The editors of the Black Scholar journal split in two camps. The Black World journal was yet another casualty. Political organizations fell apart overnight, and the movement unraveled. The officers of the African Liberation Support Committee abandoned its national headquarters without notice, leaving the regional and local branches in chaos. The National Black Political Assembly, a rich outgrowth of the Gary Convention, turned into two or three warring camps and flew apart. In short, key Black Power movement leaders forfeited leadership, while others were helpless to stop the collapse.

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Despite all the setbacks, resistance in the Black Revolt had deep roots, and the Second Reconstruction proved its dogged determination in self-emancipation. Sections of the Welfare Rights movement won local victories, like the one led by Ruby Duncan in Las Vegas, as did the Women’s Collective in the public housing projects in Baltimore. A powerful anti-apartheid movement arose to support the South African liberation movement under the leadership of TransAfrica. Furthermore, in the midst of racism and reaction, in 1980 a reconstructed Black Power effort rebounded under a new banner, the National Black United Front (NBUF), led by Brooklyn’s Rev. Herbert Daughtry and the East’s Jitu Weusi. Many of the local Black United Fronts began as movements against police brutality, “killer cops,” and aggressive anti-black vigilante groups. By 1984 NBUF voted to support the fledgling presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Jackson turned to both Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and NBUF, which had a national network of local groups struggling against racism on the education, justice, and labor fronts—many with progressive interracial alliances. That marked a new stage in the Black Revolt.

From that momentum, at least seven developments flowered: an unprecedented election of two black governors, Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts; black mayors David Dinkins and Harold Washington in New York City and Chicago, respectively; as well as the New Black Panther Party; the Black Radical Congress; the Hip Hop Political Conventions; the series of Million Marches heralded by Louis Farrakhan at the helm of the Nation of Islam. Thus, the persistence and depth of the Second Black Reconstruction is noteworthy.

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The Black Arts Movement

Finally, one of the most lasting legacies of the Black Power movement has been the ongoing strength of the Black Arts movement. Not only has Kwanzaa spread, but institutionally and stylistically the black cultural revolution left indelible marks on Rastafarian, hip hop, and spoken word artists. Black Arts festivals began in the 1960s and continue in the annual National Black Arts Festivals in Atlanta.

The Black Arts movement inspired the establishment of some eight hundred black theaters and cultural centers in the United States. Writers and artists in dozens of cities assembled and fashioned alternative institutions modeled after the Harlem Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BARTS): Baraka established the Spirit House in Newark; Ed Bullins, Marvin X, Hilary Broadus, and Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Arts West in San Francisco; Kalamu ya Salaam, the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans; Dudley Randall, the Concept East Theater and the Broadsides publishers in Detroit; Barbara Ann Teer and Richard Wesley, the National Black Theater and New Lafayette in New York; Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti, the Afro-Arts Theater, the Organization of Black American Culture and Third World Press in Chicago.

Further, the Black Arts movement inspired Chicago’s giant mural Wall of Respect, devoted to the new voices of black liberation, which influenced murals in communities across the country. A host of new Black Arts and Black Studies journals provided vital forums for the development of a new generation of writers and artists: Umbra, Liberator, Negro Digest/Black World, Freedomways, Black Scholar, Cricket, Journal of Black Poetry, Black Dialogue, Black America, and Soulbook. Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka edited Black Fire, a thick volume of poetry, essays, and drama, which drew national attention to the transformation that was under way among African-American artists.

The influences of the Black Arts renaissance are both profound and far-reaching, reflected in the drama of Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, Ed Bullins, Charles Fuller, Ntozake Shange, Woodie King, Adrienne Kennedy, and Richard Wesley; the painting of Vincent Smith; the photography of Billy Abernathy; the architecture of Majenzi Earl Coombs; the documentary films of William Greaves and St. Clair Bourne; the novels of Toni Cade Bambara, John A. Williams, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, Margaret Walker, William Melvin Kelley, Paule Marshall, Nathan Heard, John O. Killens, Rosa Guy, and Toni Morrison; the feature film work of Spike Lee, Samuel Jackson, and Denzel Washington; the acting of Barbara Ann Teer, Yusef Iman, Danny Glover, Lou Gossett, and Al Freeman; the music of Nina Simone, Milford Graves, Marion Brown, Sonny Murray, Abbey Lincoln, and Archie Shepp; and the poetry of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Mari Evans, Haki Madhubuti, Jayne Cortez, Askia Muhammad Touré, Etheridge Knight, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron, and The Last Poets.

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