Peniel E. Joseph: Black Power's Quiet Side

Roundup: Talking About History

[Peniel E. Joseph, an assistant professor of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the author of the forthcoming "Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America."]

JUST over 40 years ago, on June 16, 1966, Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, mounted a podium on a sticky evening in the Mississippi Delta and introduced the phrase "Black Power" to a crowd of civil rights demonstrators. "Black Power" quickly became the controversial slogan for a movement that was largely perceived as rejecting the civil rights movement's nonviolent tactics and goals of integration in favor of a new ethos of black identity, self-defense and separatism.

For the next several years expressions of black power appeared everywhere: from gun-toting Black Panthers and clench-fisted athletes at the Olympics to sky-high Afros and dashiki-clad poets, politicians and actors. Then, like a bright streaking comet, the movement seemed to vanish as quickly as it appeared, plagued by internal divisions, poor leadership and pressure from authorities.

Historians tend to regard black power's polemics, boisterous nationalism and misogyny as antithetical to the civil rights movement's dreams of community. Its reputation as having helped unleash urban violence — and a white backlash — remains a fixed part of civil rights scholarship and public memory.

But four decades later, it's worth reminding ourselves that Carmichael's role was more nuanced than we tend to acknowledge. And it is his friendly relationship with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., now largely forgotten, that exemplifies the hidden connections between two movements often seen as mutually exclusive.

The friendship between the two men, forged in the heat of James Meredith's "March Against Fear" in 1966 in Mississippi, featured, in addition to sharp disagreements over the tactic of armed self-defense, areas of agreement. Both sought to connect the civil rights movement to antiwar and anti-poverty campaigns.

And in other respects they were not so far apart. It's worth recalling Dr. King, surrounded by large posters reading "Black Is Beautiful and It's So Beautiful to Be Black," extolling black pride and culture at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's 1967 convention. Similarly, it's worth remembering that Carmichael, often portrayed as a hothead who scorned Dr. King's unwavering commitment to nonviolence, met privately with him in 1968 to offer support for the ill-fated Poor People's Campaign. ...

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