The Foundations of Black Power

Fists in the air, attendees smile at the Revolutionary People's Party Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, September 1970. Photo: David Fenton via Getty Images.

Black power emphasized black self-reliance and self-determination more than integration. Proponents believed African Americans should secure their human rights by creating political and cultural organizations that served their interests.

They insisted that African Americans should have power over their own schools, businesses, community services and local government. They focused on combating centuries of humiliation by demonstrating self-respect and racial pride as well as celebrating the cultural accomplishments of black people around the world. The black power movement frightened most of white America and unsettled scores of black Americans.

Malcolm X
The inspiration behind much of the black power movement, Malcolm X’s intellect, historical analysis, and powerful speeches impressed friend and foe alike. The primary spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1964, he traveled to Mecca that year and returned more optimistic about social change. He saw the African American freedom movement as part of an international struggle for human rights and anti-colonialism. After his assassination in 1965, his memory continued to inspire the rising tide of black power.

 

Malcolm X speaking in front of the 369th Regiment Armory, 1964.

Malcolm X speaking in front of the 369th Regiment Armory, 1964. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Nell Draper-Winston, © The Louis Draper Archive

More than any other person, Malcolm X was responsible for the growing consciousness and new militancy of black people.

Julius Lester 1968

Malcolm X’s expression of black pride and self-determination continued to resonate with and engage many African Americans long after his death in February 1965. For example, listening to recordings of his speeches inspired African American soldiers to organize GIs United Against the War in Vietnam in 1969.

This 16mm film is a short documentary made by Madeline Anderson for National Education Television's Black Journal television program to commemorate the four year anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X.

© National Educational Television

Stokely Carmichael
Stokely Carmichael set a new tone for the black freedom movement when he demanded “black power” in 1966. Drawing on long traditions of racial pride and black nationalism, black power advocates enlarged and enhanced the accomplishments and tactics of the civil rights movement. Rather than settle for legal rights and integration into white society, they demanded the cultural, political, and economic power to strengthen black communities so they could determine their own futures.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s former associate Stokely Carmichael Speaking at civil rights rally in Washington, April 4, 1970

Martin Luther King Jr.'s former associate Stokely Carmichael speaks at civil rights rally in Washington, April 4, 1970.

Bettmann via Getty Images

Black Power Intertwines with Civil Rights
Organizers made no distinctions between black power and nonviolent civil rights boycotts in Madison County, Mississippi, 1966.

Flyer for the Madison County Movement, founded 1963. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection

SNCC Supports Black Power
SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, created in 1960, destroyed “the psychological shackles which had kept black southerners in physical and mental peonage,” according to its chairman, Julian Bond.

Julian Bond standing and writing as a young African American boy watches closely, 1976. 

Julian Bond standing and writing as a young African American boy watches closely, 1976. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Milton Williams Archives © Milton Williams

Protest, Teaneck, New Jersey
​Building on the successes of the civil rights movement in dismantling segregation, the black power movement sought a further transformation of American society and culture.

A woman sits on a bench outside the Black Panther office in Harlem circa 1970 in New York City. Pictured in the window are Panther founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.

A woman sits on a bench outside the Black Panther office in Harlem circa 1970 in New York City. Pictured in the window are Panther founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. 

Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Black Power Around the World
​Revolutions in other nations inspired advocates of black power. The African revolutions against European colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s were exciting examples of success. Wars of national liberation in Southeast Asia and Northern Africa offered still more encouragement. Stokely Carmichael’s five-month world speaking tour in 1967 made black power a key to revolutionary language in places like Algeria, Cuba and Vietnam.

Dead and wounded rioters lying in the streets of Sharpeville, South Africa, following an anti-apartheid demonstration organized by the Pan-Africanist Congress which called upon Africans to leave their passes at home, March 23, 1960.

Sharpeville massacre: Dead and wounded rioters lie in the streets of Sharpeville, South Africa, following an anti-apartheid demonstration organized by the Pan-Africanist Congress which called upon Africans to leave their passes at home, March 21, 1960. The South African police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people and injuring 180 others. 

Central Press/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Protesting Apartheid, Cape Town, South Africa
In 1972 African Americans began annual celebrations of African Liberation Day to commemorate and support liberation movements in Africa. 

This flyer announces a protest against apartheid in South Africa, 1977. Pan African Students Organization in the Americas (1960 - 1977) and Youth Against War & Fascism, founded 1961. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

“Free All Political Prisoners!”
Critics vilified black power organizations as separatist groups or street gangs. These critics ignored the movement’s political activism, cultural innovations and social programs. Of nearly 300 authorized FBI operations against black nationalist groups, more than 230 targeted the Black Panthers. This forced organizations to spend time, money, and effort toward legal defense rather than social programs. 

A round, yellow pinback button with a photographic portrait of Angela Davis in the center, 1970-72

A round, yellow pinback button with a photographic portrait of Angela Davis in the center, 1970-72. 

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The War on Black Power
Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI and other government agencies waged a war against dissidents, especially African Americans and anti-war advocates. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeted Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, Us and other black groups. Activities included spying, wiretapping phones, making criminal charges on flimsy evidence, spreading rumors and even assassinating prominent individuals, like Black Panther Fred Hampton. By the mid-1970s, these actions helped to weaken or destroy many of the groups associated with the black power movement.

The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover 1969
Olympic Medalists Giving Black Power Sign: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games, engage in a victory stand protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. With heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute, they refuse to recognize the American flag and national anthem. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist.

Olympic Medalists Giving Black Power Sign, 1968
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) gold and bronze medalists in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Olympic Games. During the national anthem, they stand with heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in the black power salute to protest against unfair treatment of blacks in the United States. Australian Peter Norman is the silver medalist (left).

Bettmann via Getty Images