It's a term that conjures lots of different stuff in the minds of those old
enough to remember it as a catchphrase
, and one person's writeup can only
give a partial description. Stokely Carmichael
popularized the phrase,
as he steered the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
into waters that had little or nothing to do with the relatively soothing, user-friendly
of Dr. Martin Luther King
, Jr. and the Civil Rights
Carmichael, newly-ascended to the post of SNCC
president in 1966, gave a
speech at a Mississippi rally that included this bit of call-and-response...
"What do you want?"
"What do you want?"
...and it stuck. Carmichael would give that title, Black Power
, to the
book he was working on.
Malcolm X had already been working such territory as this, and his assassination, as well as that of Medgar Evers, had probably soured a lot of people on mere nonviolence as a solution. Carmichael, an orator nearly as great as Malcolm, and as telegenic as anything on TV, would be ousted from SNCC, a parting of the ways engendered by his growing larger than the organization. His successor, though, was no less militant or controversial: H. Rap Brown, coiner of the phrase "Violence is as American as cherry pie", and later indicted, perhaps unfairly, for trying to incite a Maryland riot.
Carmichael, before permanently leaving the United States, joined the Black
Panthers for a little while. They were all about self-reliance, at least at
first, a notion that stretched back to the Nation of Islam, to Marcus
Garvey, and beyond. Self-reliance was emphasized in Maulana Karenga's
kujichagulia, part of the nguzo saba that forms the foundation of Kwanzaa.
At its most extreme, though, self-reliance became the separatism of Robert Williams' notion of forming the Republic of New Africa in North America, or of Carmichael's rapprochement with the Panthers, damning them for having too many rich white friends. (See Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic").
Notions previously the preserve of intellectuals, like nationalism,
negritude, and the writings of Frantz Fanon, found their way, pop-ified,
into everyday life. "Black is Beautiful" became another catchphrase, a form of
consciousness raising and of positive reinforcement. Wearing an afro
became a political statement, and later a fashion statement, as were
dashikis, beads, maybe an ankh or other sign of Africa. James Brown,
voice of a generation due to his musico-conceptual prowess, came up with an
anthem of sorts: "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud!", striking a chord with
the mood of the day, even as his funk was a happy-accident expression of
musical negritude; JB's own politics were fairly conservative and old
school, but he was never one to shy away from all the attention.
At its worst, Black Power was about negritude gone wrong. COINTELPRO
did much to destroy it, but the leaders and spokespersons themselves did much to show off the "give them enough rope" adage. Black Power became less about empowerment-for-many than it was about face time for a few. Plus the aforementioned separatism, reverse racism, anti-semitism, and ill-equipped "leaders" who were Liliputians compared to the Nobel-laureate statesmanship of a Dr. King, or the sincere truth-seeking and truth-telling of a Malcolm.
The perceived lack of progress in ending the Vietnam War and racial
inequality, combined with official antagonism towards activism and activists,
created a slightly larger audience for radical politics and radical
solutions, were they of the organized variety, or of the spontaneous
kind, in the form of inner-city riots (burn, baby, burn! - another catchphrase of the day) in various US cities, for instance. But by the end of the 60s, there were mainstream black politicians winning mayoral elections - Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Kenneth Gibson in Newark, and even Charles Evers (brother of Medgar) was able to become mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, in a state that was a bastion of Old South antagonism.
While the likes of Brown, Carmichael, and Eldridge Cleaver, et al, were glibly able to garner national attention, and scare the hell out of portions of White America, a "silent majority" of African-Americans preferred the ballot to the (real or rhetorical) bullet. And while J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO follies may have done much to decimate any momentum the Black Power movement(s) had, the real action was quietly taking place away from the cameras, as the changes wrought by the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, and by LBJ's anti-poverty programs began to reverse the negative effects of the previous centuries, and began to pre-empt, possibly, another decade like the 1960s. "Black power" was, after all, supposed to be about empowerment; it didn't necessarily require guns, photo ops, or solidarity trips to Cuba.
Many figures from that era ended up in positions of mainstream power and/or
prominence. Bobby Rush, an ex-Panther, got elected to Congress; Cleaver and Bobby Seale reincarnated themselves as entrepreneurs. And much has passed into popular culture, where even Digable Planets could slip in some Movement or Five-Percenter rhetoric for your dining and dancing pleasure, and a caricature named Nat X could become somewhat well-known.
And there was a flood of "_____ Power" movements, inspired, in part, by the whole phenomenon, bringing people like The Young Lords and Cesar Chavez into regional or national prominence, and there was a riot that started at the Stonewall. Another flood: Curt Flood, not really much of a radical, who was inspired to fight the master-slave relationship built into player contracts in professional sports; Black Power had begat Jock Power (or Jock Lib). And, combining both, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, US medalists in the 200-meter dash in the 1968 Olympics, refusing to face the American flag or acknowledge the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" while on the victory stand, but instead raising a clenched black-gloved fist. (One used the left fist, and the other used the right, since their gesture was a last-minute thing, and they could only find the one pair of black gloves.) This was the aftermath of a failed attempt at a total boycott by black athletes (the Olympic Project for Human Rights), but some, like Lew Alcindor, went ahead and skipped the '68 Games anyway. The leader of that boycott, Harry Edwards, is now an executive with the San Francisco 49ers.
Miscellaneous links (some non-existent as of this writing), with varying
degrees of relevance: Pan-Africanism, Organization of African-American
Unity, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Soul City, Black Arts Movement, Flip Wilson, Women's Liberation Movement, American Indian Movement, and more to come.