When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, the path toward a fairer, more inclusive future seemed clear. But soon after, many of those who supported Black Power expressed doubts. Malcolm X was one of the first to question the nonviolent protests and civil disobedience endorsed by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Worries about Black Power
Malcolm X promoted a new era of greater militancy. He was assassinated in 1965. But successors such as Stokely Carmichael produced a more provocative vision of Black Power. It was about giving African Americans political, cultural, and economic power. And this threatened many whites.
Martin Luther King worried that the slogan “Black power” carried “connotations of violence and separatism” that could harm the civil rights cause. Still, he acknowledged the logic in the term. In a 1967 book called Where Do We Go from Here? King wrote, “Power is not the white man’s birthright.” And so, it could not be legislatively gifted to Black people. The implication many drew was that if power couldn’t be gifted, it had to be seized.
King was assassinated in April of 1968. Race riots broke out across more than 100 American cities, initiating a more militant phase of Black liberation. This caused a backlash among establishmentarian officials who vowed to reestablish law and order to satisfy a white majority that had become unnerved by Black militancy.
Nixon Taking Office
The late president John F. Kennedy’s younger brother, Bobby, announced his own campaign for the presidency in spring 1968. He called for peace and the rejection of racism. Many young people came to believe that if Robert Kennedy were elected president, the United States would turn the corner toward greater equity and justice.
But Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed while campaigning in California. A sense of rage and hopelessness swept across the nation, evolving into bedlam at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August.
Inside the Chicago convention hall, Democratic delegates sparred over the war in Vietnam and other issues while protesters and police came to blows outside. Yet it was the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who prevailed.
After Nixon took office the following January, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in Vietnam. And because the US voting age was 21 at the time—and remained so until being lowered to 18 in 1973—many of the young American service members in Vietnam, as well as young Americans generally, had managed no say in the election results and possessed little power of any kind. Things looked pretty bleak.
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Black Activism at the XIX Olympiad
During the XIX Olympiad in Mexico City that October, two talented Black American track athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, celebrated gold and bronze medals atop the Olympic platform with their heads bowed, each with a black-gloved fist raised in the air while the national anthem played. It was an iconic moment in the nascent Black Power movement.
Tommie Smith would later say that he and John Carlos raised their fists because they couldn’t otherwise be heard. It was a stand against racism, poverty, and hypocrisy. Of course, the athletes paid a heavy price for it. They were suspended from the US track team and told to leave Mexico City, and they became the targets of hatred and even death threats.
The Black Panthers
The Black Power movement was itself a variety of groups, viewpoints, and agendas. When most people hear the phrase “Black power”, their minds jump to the most dramatic representations of the movement: The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
The Black Panthers rejected the notion of non-violent protests, embracing violence to defend Black communities from racism and police brutality. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers the most dangerous threat to US law and order at that time. But the Black Panthers were more than gun-toting militants in berets, leather jackets, and sunglasses.
They demanded full employment and decent housing for Black Americans, and they organized voter registrations, opened health-care centers, and oversaw food distribution drives. Still, after a number of armed confrontations with police and having become a target of the FBI, the Black Panther Party effectively dissolved in the early 1970s.
Dawn of a New Identity
Another element in the Black Power movement did endure. When James Brown sang, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968, the idea of Black beauty resonated with countless Americans. Many began to self-identify as Afro-American and Black, rejecting the dated term Negro. Black Americans increasingly wore African clothes and jewelry and let their hair grow out.
The militant scholar Angela Davis—a Black Panther member and human rights activist—emerged as an iconic figure in the movement. She spent just over a year in prison after being charged with conspiracy to murder after guns registered to her were used in a politically charged murder.
“Free Angela” buttons were everywhere. A photo of her with her famous Afro celebrated the idea of Black beauty while calling attention to the racial imbalance in the US justice system and the need for prison reform. She was ultimately acquitted.
Common Questions about the Black Power Movement
Martin Luther King worried about the connotations of the slogan. He thought Black Power carried connotations of violence and worried that it would harm the civil rights cause Black activists had fought for so fiercely. On the other hand, he also acknowledged the logic behind the term.
Supporting the Black Power movement and because they wanted their voices to be heard, two Black American track athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, bowed their heads with their black-gloved fists in the air atop the podium. This, of course, cost them dearly since they were suspended from the US track team.
Part of the Black Power movement, the Black Panther party didn’t believe in non-violent protests and embraced violence. On the other hand, they were responsible for organizing voter registrations, opening health-care centers, and overseeing food distribution drives.