The Black Power era

October 25, 2011

Alan Maass examines the legacy of a movement that shaped the international left.

MANY PEOPLE look back now and see the mid-1960s as a time of triumph for the civil rights movement in the U.S. South.

Huge numbers of people participated in demonstrations that are remembered with reverence--like the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. The two landmark laws that abolished legalized discrimination in the Jim Crow South were passed--the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But for Black Americans at the time, it wasn't at all clear that the movement was winning.

There was no let-up in the savagery of the Southern racists. For example, the "Bloody Sunday" assault on civil rights demonstrators trying to march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama took place in March 1965, as the Senate was taking up the Voting Rights Act.

The same summer that the Civil Rights Act passed, segregation triumphed at the 1964 Democratic National Convention when the party, led by northern liberals, rejected a challenge by civil rights activists against the Mississippi delegation elected under Jim Crow laws.

Black Panther Party members rally in 1968
Black Panther Party members rally in 1968

In the North, segregation was already against the law, but African Americans endured racism in forms that seemed at least as deep-seated--workplace discrimination, substandard housing and schools, police violence. These conditions, especially the brutality of police, sparked urban rebellions that struck every major U.S. city over the course of the mid- to late 1960s.

Then there were the assassinations--Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King in 1968, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Chicago branch of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1969, and the list could go on. These were political murders of leaders of the Black struggle, some carried out by the forces of the U.S. state and others with their suspected connivance.

Remembering that, it's easier to understand the words of a young Black woman near the beginning of the new documentary The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 in response to a reporter's question about the future: "I don't think there is much of a future at this point. Not much at all. They're just killing everyone."

ALL THIS is the backdrop to the era of Black Power--which is revisited in The Black Power Mixtape, a collection of fascinating interviews and images recorded by Swedish television journalists in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Black Power represented a geographic shift of the movement to the northern cities following the civil rights victories against the Jim Crow South. But it was also a political shift, as participants in the Black struggle confronted the need for new strategies that went beyond the civil rights movement's commitment to nonviolence.

In a speech shown in The Black Power Mixtape, Stokely Carmichael--a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and probably the best-known representative of the radicalizing young activists of the civil rights movement--described what was at issue. According to the principles championed by Martin Luther King, Carmichael said:

[I]f you are nonviolent, if you suffer, then your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart...[King] only made one fallacious assumption. In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.

To meet the new challenges, something more was needed. But what? Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, is credited with introducing the Black Power slogan to the 1960s movement when he raised it as a chant at a 1966 march in Mississippi.

The phrase electrified the crowd. It seemed to answer the frustration with the slow pace of change--when there was any change at all--and speak to the need to go beyond protests tailored toward appealing to the conscience of "white America." As Carmichael wrote in a SNCC statement published in the New York Review of Books:

For too many years, Black Americans marched and had their heads broken and got shot...After years of this, we are at almost the same point--because we demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you're nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out...

This is what [Blacks] seek: control...[Black Power] means the creation of power bases from which Black people can work to change statewide or nationwide patterns of oppression through pressure from strength--instead of weakness.

The immediate popularity of the Black Power slogan showed the increasing radicalization of the movement. But it also raised questions. What exactly did Black Power mean?

To some, Black Power was interpreted as an explicit call for Black capitalism. The first major Black Power conference, held in Newark, N.J., in 1967, was organized by a Republican businessman named Nathan Wright Jr. with the message that African Americans needed to organize for their "fair share of the pie."

President Richard Nixon himself could sympathize with this definition of Black Power. He declared in a 1968 speech that "[w]hat most of the militants are asking is not separation, but to be included in--not as supplicants, but as owners, as entrepreneurs--to have a share of the wealth and a piece of the action." Federal government programs, Nixon said, should "be oriented toward more Black ownership, for from this can flow the rest--Black pride, Black jobs, Black opportunity and, yes, Black Power."

Another current in Black Power was cultural nationalism. Every part of the movement identified with Black pride and embraced the history and traditions of African American resistance. But the cultural nationalists elevated the establishment of a separate and distinct culture to the sole aim of the movement, explicitly rejecting political struggle.

Also, of course, Black Power represented "the Black radical tradition--a tradition of struggle, of organization," as historian Robin Kelley explains in a contemporary interview that the makers of The Black Power Mixtape unfortunately left to the final minutes of their film.

This is the definition of Black Power that we're more familiar with today, embodied in organizations like the Black Panthers, and later the Revolutionary Union Movements, with their focus on workplace organization.

During the Black Power era, the differences between these currents were explicit--and hotly debated. The Panthers, for example, were devoted to organizing in the community and creating a sense of Black pride, but they were withering in their criticisms of cultural nationalism and Black capitalism.

In The Black Power Mixtape, Panther leader Bobby Seale explains in an interview: "We look at this program as a very international-type program. It's for any human being who wants to survive...Socialism is the order of the day, and not Nixon's Black capitalism. That's out."

The Panthers considered themselves revolutionaries committed to overthrowing capitalism--and they therefore sought to make alliances with other people and forces which shared that common interest, including whites. In a 2010 interview for the documentary, Seale explained the Panthers' aims by referring to the organization's slogan: "All power to all the people, whether you're white, black, blue, red, green, yellow or polka-dotted--in the final analysis, what we wanted was real people's community control and empowerment."

BLACK POWER was one of the most important developments for the left internationally in the 1960s. The movement's actions and ideas inspired a generation--something The Black Power Mixtape helps to illustrate with footage of international demonstrations in solidarity with the Black struggle in the U.S.

These demonstrations weren't just about sympathy for the African American struggle. Radicals around the world were shaped and influenced by the Black Power movement in how they expressed their own grievances and developed their own political strategies.

The most important influence of all was that appealing to the current system to act according to its stated principles of justice and equality wasn't enough--that a more militant form of struggle was needed to fundamentally transform society.

The best part of The Black Power Mixtape is the glimpses it shows of the Black movement at this magnificent high point, as important as the civil rights struggle that came before it.

The segments with Black Power leaders themselves, in both public and private moments, are riveting. There is one interview clip with Angela Davis that would make the movie a must-see even if the film only lasted for that four-and-a-half minutes.

The interview took place while Davis was in prison, facing trial on trumped-up murder charges in California. She was asked by a reporter how she felt about the "violence" of the movement--and any socialist who has had to respond to a similar question will want to try to remember every word:

When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and goals that you're striving for, not in the way you reach them.

On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.

If you're a Black person and you live in the Black community, all your life, you walk out on the street every day, seeing white policeman surrounding you. When I was living in Los Angeles, for instance...I was constantly stopped. The police didn't know who I was, but I was a Black woman, and I had a natural, and I suppose they thought that I might be a "militant"...

You live under that situation constantly, and then you ask me whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn't make any sense at all.

Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs--bombs that were planted by racists...From the time I was very, very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment, we might expect to be attacked.

The man who was at that time in complete control of the city government--his name was Bull Connor--would often get on the radio and make statements like "Niggers have moved into a white neighborhood, we'd better expect some bloodshed tonight." And sure enough, there would be bloodshed.

Davis then talked about the four African American girls, aged 11 to 14, who were killed in the racist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963:

One of them lived next door to me. I was very good friends with the sister of another of them. My sister was very good friends with all three of them. My mother taught one of them in her class. In fact, when the bombing occurred, one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, "Can you take me down to the church? I have to pick up Carole, we heard about the bombing, and I don't have my car."

And they went down there, and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place. And then after that, in my neighborhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and control our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.

I mean, that's why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is the person who's asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through--what Black people have experienced in this country since the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.

THE BLACK Power Mixtape isn't a systematic history of the period, and that leads to some problems in the film.

For example, after the Angela Davis trial, the movie veers suddenly into a discussion of the crisis of Black community in the mid-1970s, with a focus on the terrible toll taken by drug abuse. The connection, though it isn't well explained, is that many people believe the Black Power movement was crushed by a government conspiracy to flood the African American community with drugs.

There is strong evidence to back up this allegation--for example, the role of the CIA in heroin and opium trafficking from Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War--but it's only part of the story.

The Black Power Mixtape draws attention to other factors--most importantly, the brute violence of the American state, from the outright murder of Black revolutionaries to the FBI's COINTELPRO program to wreck Black Power organizations.

Another element doesn't get much discussion in the film, even during Robin Kelley's brief commentary: the attempts to co-opt sections of the Black Power struggle into the two-party political system.

Electing Blacks to political office to represent Black people seemed like an obvious expression of Black Power. But this strategy turned about to be almost as appealing to the U.S. elite as Black capitalism. Mainstream institutions like the Ford Foundation devoted large sums of money to encouraging "political action" within the framework of electoral politics.

According to the late historian Manning Marable, there were just 100 Black elected officials around the U.S. in 1964. By 1969, that number was 1,000, and by 1975, it was 3,000. Almost all of these African American officeholders were liberal Democrats--including former grassroots activists.

But in spite of any background in the struggle or radical ideology, Black officeholders found themselves pulled in the opposite direction of the Black Power movement--all the more so the further they rose in politics. The Black Democrats were forced by their position to administer the very policies that caused the crisis of Black America, especially as the conservative shift begun under Democratic President Jimmy Carter and continued under Republican Ronald Reagan took hold.

For a fuller history of the Black Power era, you'll want to turn to some of the excellent books on the subject. Start with Ahmed Shawki's Black Liberation and Socialism to put the 1960s and '70s in the context of the broader African American struggle. After that, look for Manning Marable's Race, Reform and Rebellion and Robert Allen's Black Awakening in Capitalist America. The Black Power Mixtape makes a great accompaniment to these books, along with the second Eyes on the Prize documentary series, covering the years 1965 to 1985.

For anyone involved in the struggles of today, there are rich lessons to be learned from any of these books or movies. That's something The Black Power Mixtape makes clear in an unexpected but fascinating way.

Apparently inspired by Robin Kelley's contention that the legacy of Black Power is being carried on to some extent today in hip hop, The Black Power Mixtape includes, alongside all the historical footage and interviews, voiceover comments from contemporary Black musicians like John Forté and Questlove, who provided the film's excellent soundtrack.

These comments are often as telling as the historical footage. For example, if you happen to miss the on-screen identifications for the voiceovers by the brilliant Erykah Badu, you'll almost certainly assume that you're hearing the razor-sharp observations of Angela Davis from 40 years ago.

But that's the point. The Black Power era may be four decades in the past, but it's crucially relevant to the world we live in today--and most of all to the struggle for a different future.

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