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Black Power

AP.USH:
KC‑8.2.I.A (KC)
,
SOC (Theme)
,
Unit 8: Learning Objective L
Learn about Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party.

Overview

  • “Black Power” refers to a militant ideology that aimed not at integration and accommodation with white America, but rather preached black self-reliance, self-defense, and racial pride.
  • Malcolm X was the most influential thinker of what became known as the Black Power movement, and inspired others like Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party.
  • The Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, operated as both a black self-defense militia and a provider of services to the black community.

The origins of Black Power

Though the actual phrase “Black Power” did not come into widespread usage until 1966, the ideas underlying Black Power were not new. As early as the 1940s, A. Philip Randolph, an African American labor activist, called for a march on Washington to pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to outlaw racial discrimination in federal employment. Randolph envisioned the march as “an all-Negro movement” that would inculcate “a sense of self-reliance” and “break down the slave psychology and inferiority-complex in Negroes which comes and is nourished with Negroes relying on white people for direction and support.”start superscript, 1, end superscript Though Randolph himself eschewed black nationalism, the goals of self-reliance and racial pride would become key components of the Black Power ideology.
The author Richard Wright had also published a book called Black Power in 1954, a non-fiction chronicle of his travels to Africa’s Gold Coast, the country that would become Ghana.squared Wright’s journeys underscore the significance of ties between Africans and African Americans and the centrality of decolonization in black power ideology. In the 1950s and 1960s, African countries were becoming independent after decades of European colonial rule. African American thinkers like Richard Wright and later, Malcolm X, drew a connection between the struggles of Africans to overthrow the remaining vestiges of colonial oppression and the struggles of African Americans to overcome the white power structure in the United States.cubed

Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam

Led by Elijah Muhammad, born Elijah Poole, the Nation of Islam, also known as the Black Muslims, had existed since the 1930s. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, became acquainted with Elijah Muhammad and the teachings of the Nation of Islam while serving time for burglary at the Norfolk Prison Colony in Massachusetts. After the expiration of his parole, he became involved with the Nation of Islam, serving as its emissary on a visit to the Middle East and Africa in 1959, and becoming the minister of Mosque No. 7 in Harlem. Malcolm X’s fiery rhetoric and charismatic presence gained the Nation of Islam many new adherents in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Nation of Islam advocated black self-empowerment and self-reliance, as well as cultural and racial pride. The most famous Black Muslim was undoubtedly the heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting.
Malcolm X, Black Power advocate and founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In 1964, Malcolm X again traveled to the Middle East and Africa, and made his Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Upon his return to the United States, he publicly repudiated the Nation of Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, choosing instead to adhere to a more conventional version of Sunni Islam. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which embraced the internationalization of the black freedom struggle and continued to emphasize black self-determination and self-defense. On February 21, 1965, after months of receiving death threats, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan by members of the Nation of Islam.start superscript, 4, end superscript His autobiography was published shortly after his death and quickly became a bestseller.start superscript, 5, end superscript

The Black Panther Party

In June 1966, Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee shouted the words “black power” in an address to a freedom rally in Greenwood, Mississippi.start superscript, 6, end superscript The incident reflected the increased militancy of groups like SNCC and CORE, which had previously adhered to nonviolent civil disobedience. The Black Panther Party of Self-Defense was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, who issued a ten-point program demanding, among other things, freedom, employment, and an immediate end to police brutality.
The Black Panthers gained notoriety when in the spring of 1967, its gun-toting members staged a protest at the state capitol against a gun control bill then being debated by the California state legislature. The Black Panthers espoused a militant form of black self-defense and functioned as a local militia, taking advantage of open-carry gun laws to patrol black neighborhoods in Oakland in order to prevent police harassment and brutality. The Panthers also provided community services, such as free breakfasts for children, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, self-defense classes, and free medical clinics and childcare centers.start superscript, 7, end superscript Largely due to the Panthers’ militant rhetoric and armed self-defense, the state of California imposed strictures on open-carry gun laws, and the FBI employed its counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) to combat what it perceived as the Black Panther Party’s subversive threat to American democracy.start superscript, 8, end superscript

What do you think?

Was Black Power part of the Civil Rights Movement or was it opposed to the Civil Rights Movement?
How did the goals of the Black Power movement differ from those of more mainstream civil rights activists? Compare the major demands of the Ten-Point Program with the goals of civil rights campaigns for voting rights and desegregation.
Why do you think the ideas of Black Power gained in popularity over the course of the 1960s?

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