Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Amiri Baraka

Black Power Twenty Years Later

First Published: Unity, In two parts, in Vol. 9, No. 11, August 15, 1986 and Vol. 9, No. 12, August 29, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Twenty years ago America was a different country, at least a different society.

It was June 6, 1966 when James Meredith, whose historic enrollment at Ol’ Miss in 1962 had caused a white supremacy riot, was shot while walking alone on a Mississippi highway as part of his Memphis to Jackson “March Against Fear” which was supposed to draw attention to the fact that despite the flurry of civil rights talk, even from as high up as the white house, that the majority of black people in backward Mississippi lived in constant touch with fear. Because there was still a high level of anti-black violence though counterpointed by the intensifying aggressiveness of the Black struggle during the period.

Meredith’s march was resumed by Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, then leader of CORE, and Stokely Carmichael, who had just become Chairman of SNCC the month before. Dr. King had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the same year as the Harlem rebellion (and smaller ones in Jersey City and Paterson, New Jersey). It was the same year that civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were found murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi (where Pres. Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign for president) and the acknowledged murderers not only got freed, but years later in 1985, one’s daughter would become Miss America!

It was on this march, which saw the public emergence of sharp contradictions between Dr. King’s SCLC, its passive resistance and “integration” and CORE, which had once been SCLC’s northern, urban counterpart and SNCC, the leadership of the Black Student Movement. This had happened because by 1963, and the March on Washington, the Non-Violent sector of the movement had reached its peak, and was already in decline. This coupled with the assassination of John Kennedy made black people feel that there was no longer any “official” support for their liberation movement, and the rise of murders of activists in the south seemed to make it obvious that without self defense discussion of “rights” was academic.

At its inception the Black Student Movement was heavily influenced by Dr. King and SCLC, hence their name Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). But several things influenced the student movement and moved them further away from Dr. King. First, King’s style of coming into a community, demonstrating, utilizing the media, making demands and then leaving was questioned by the students who had moved into black communities of Alabama and Mississippi and registered voters and organized long ranged political struggles.

Secondly, there was the profound influence of Malcolm X and the militant nationalism of the Nation of Islam. There was also a great deal of resentment by the students at the way John F. Kennedy (JFK) was allowed to coopt the March on Washington, including Archbishop Doyle’s censoring of then SNCC chairman, John Lewis’ speech. It was John Lewis that Carmichael replaced!

Perhaps the key element in splitting the student movement from Dr. King and SCLC was the democratic convention of 1964 in which the “Mississippi Freedom Democrats” (MFD) led by Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer struggled to be represented as the rightful representatives to the convention, since the official delegation was there illegally since almost half of the state’s population was excluded from the entire political process, including the electing of delegates, by the iron mitt of American Apartheid.

When Dr. King and his associates, and the rest of the “Big Five” Civil Rights leaders would not struggle for Mrs. Hamer and the MFD to be seated, but instead urged “compromise” on SNCC in words that had come directly from Lyndon B. Johnson, SNCC bolted it’s leadership and that of the Mississippi Democratic Party, unable to stomach such treachery.

It was this series of developments that set the stage for SNCC worker Willie Ricks to conceive of and new SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael to begin calling out “Black Power!” A cry answered with ferocious passion not only by the SNCC youth, but responded to by black people, via the media, throughout the US, and probably the world over!

By this time, Malcolm X had been murdered sixteen months before (February 65) probably by government assassins posing as Nation of Islam assassins. (Attorney William Kunstler has petitioned the federal government for years to present evidence of the real killers but this has been denied!)

Ironically, Malcolm’s suspension and later ejection from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, out of which Malcolm had emerged as a more influential presence in the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) than Mr. Muhammad, came into being ostensibly because Mr. Muhammad did not appreciate Malcolm’s response to a question after an appearance on JFK’s 1963 assassination. Namely, that in the climate of racial violence, aided and abetted by the U.S. government, Kennedy’s assassination was merely, “Chickens coming home to roost!”

Between 1963 and 1969 John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the maximum leaders both of U.S. ruling circles and the middle class and working class representatives of the African American freedom struggle were assassinated. Along with hundreds of other activists and movement figures e.g., Bobby Hut-ton, Medgar Evers, Ralph Feather-stone, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Fred Hampton, George Jackson, Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner, Bunchy Carter, John Huggins, to name just a few. Many thousands more were beaten, jailed, exiled, isolated, resulting in the disruption, distortion and partial quiescence of the BLM by the late 70’s (as well as the overall “anti imperialist” movement in the U.S.).

“The 60’s,” really extending past the mid 70’s, were the last high point in the most recent social upsurge of the black “Sisyphus Syndrome” that has characterized the lives of the African American people in the U.S. historically. The repeated pattern is a sustained upward trend bred of fierce struggle and broad unity, that is then blunted and periodically turned around socially, politically, economically, by political reaction, social repression, violence, and most of all white supremacy reasserting itself.

Carmichael’s cry “Black Power” was the new force in the movement after 1966, it carried Malcolm’s call for Self Determination, Self Respect and Self Defense. The murders of Kennedy, Evers, the little black girls blown up in a Birmingham church, the Mississippi murders, the Harlem Rebellion (64) gave us Dr. King’s Nobel Prize and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Malcolm’s murder, the Watts Rebellion (65), the world televised South African style whipping of King’s marchers at Selma, the death of the white Rev. Reeb helped give us the Voting Rights act of 1965 (100 years after the Civil War and the 15th amendment).

It was a period of militance and militants. A period when, as Mao Zedong summed up, “Countries want independence, Nations want liberation People want revolution” and “Revolution is the main trend in the work today!”

The never completed democratic revolution that the civil war and reconstruction were supposed to be was the catalytic social process that under-rode the blazing 60’s. The Civil Rights Movement fundamentally was fighting the most blatant remaining features of the social system of black chattel slavery and feudalism.

Southern segregation and discrimination were the residue of chattel slavery, American Apartheid. It should open our eyes to the social context of so called American democracy when we understand that it was not until 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education that American Apartheid was formally dealt what amounted to an illusory death blow. This is the stage now of its South African counterpart.

The cry Black Power carried with it the anti-colonial determination of the rest of the 3rd world struggling against imperialism. It echoed the cries of National Liberation Movements around the world.

The “civil (or democratic) rights” that were the emphasis of black middle class struggle were partially distorted by the media rubric of “integration.” The Black Power advocacy was equally distorted by a willfully disjunctive “white” media as merely “separatism.” But as Malcolm X pointed out at the high point of his own ideological evolution, the African American Freedom Movement is about Liberation, i.e. not separation nor integration but Democracy and self-Determination!

From 1964 to 1969, as Malcolm predicted, rebellions rocked the U.S. in every major city. The U.S. was assaulted with Black Rebellion. Newark was probably typical, though along with Watts and Detroit, these three cities accounted for over 75% of the deaths and damage from the rebellions. In 1967, Detroit and Newark accounted for over 82% of the 83 deaths and over half of the injuries. In Newark alone property damage was put at $10,251,000 with 23 persons killed!

And this was the north, not the south. In Newark the rebellion was rooted in the “colonial” social relations of a black majority city with door to door white political infrastructure. That it was racist should be indicated by its lack of representativeness. This is why the cry Black Power (and its correlative, Community Control) were potent in the north as well as the south. Since the African American people have never been integrated into the U.S. Most blacks live in black majority communities in the north which are just ghetto reproductions of the black belt south!

In the bone basement of unblinking fact, the U.S. has never been a democracy vis a vis the African American people. As the great poet Langston Hughes said, “America never was America to me.”

Fred Douglass had this to say about the vaunted U.S. liberty celebrations, “What, to the American slave is the 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he’s the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham. ...”

It is almost 150 years later and Fred’s words would strike home still with the majority of African Americans and thoughtful people of any nationality. The explosive “60’s,” whose deepest catalyst was the black democratic struggle, manifest in all directions, whether the largely white student anti war movement or the struggles of the Puerto Rican and Chicano peoples for democracy. The Black struggle then was stunted by a combination of state attacks, (assassination of leaders, imprisonment, exile, buyouts) and lack of scientific ideological development manifest in organizations that could withstand the presence or absence of revolutionary conditions. The latter was principal.

The political motion that was most continuously sustained after the hottest part of the 60’s and early 70’s was electoral politics. The Gary Convention (72) in Mayor Richard Hatcher’s Indiana city, saw some 8,000 African Americans come together to try to put together a National Black Assembly to organize black politics on a national scale. Jesse Jackson’s more recent Rainbow Coalition is, in fact, an outgrowth of those earlier efforts, with a more sophisticated multinational expansion.

Between 1970 and 1980 black mayors were elected heads of some of the largest cities in the U.S. By the end of 1979, Jimmy Carter, the only Democratic president since JFK-LBJ (John F. Kennedy-Lyndon B. Johnson), elected mainly because of the Watergate fallout, had tacitly advanced the rock-rolling-down the slope portion of Sisyphus called the Bakke decision which was anti-black, anti-minority, anti-women and anti-affirmative action.

The fallout of black petty bourgeois opportunism as a function of state and corporate bribery must not be overlooked as part of the designition of the movement, particularly if one focuses on electoral politics.

The Anti-Slavery Movement, the Harlem Renaissance-20’s, the Civil Rights-Black Liberation 50’s and 60’s were three distinct yet connected parts of the overall historic black struggle. In each case there was a steep rise, progress through struggle, to paraphrase Fred, but in each case the down stroke was produced by racist reaction.

The development of capitalism, the industrial revolution, modern Europe and the world powerful U.S. are all based on the trade in African slaves. So that from its inception, capitalism and the modern development of the Western world have been shot through with white supremacy and racism. So that there is a fundamental resistance within the material, political and ideological essence of the society that resists black struggles for equality.

Since Reagan’s trumpeting of the “new” reaction in 1980, the U.S. has marched, nay, sprinted to the right with all deliberate speed. Where JFK and co. sought to mount Black struggle and utilize the illusory extension of bourgeois democracy to blacks (in the form of voter registration, equal access to public facilities) to enhance their own power base, Reagan’s power is conceived as coldly anti-black. His pleas and actions for “state’s rights,” anti affirmative action, “reform” (read elimination) of welfare, food stamps, minority scholarships at universities, anti public education bills, Get-the-rich-richer tax statutes, elimination of health and regulatory standards in industry, his general opposition to the spending of our own tax dollars to build “domestic tranquility” is exceeded only by the zeal with which he attacks, invades, plunders other peoples countries and generally pursues nuclear war with frightening agility.

He uses an anti-communist nut-rap that at times frightens even sectors of the big Bourgeoisie themselves. So that now the man who helped trash the U.S. film industry as undercover FBI President of the Screen Actors’ Guild so that it could go from Grapes of Wrath and Casablanca to Rambo; The man who helped assassinate the Black Panther Party as Governor of California, is now loosed on the world! Invading Grenada, intervening in El Salvador, threatening Nicaragua (with the same foreign policies as Jefferson Davis!), co-signing the invasion of Lebanon and the massacres of Palestinians; saluting Nazis at Bitburg as he trumpets the “Christianization of America”; bombing Libya; and working hand in glove with the contemporary Hitlers in South Africa. (What would “constructive engagement” have looked like between Roosevelt and Himmler? “Hey, Heinrich, you got to turn down the temperature in those ovens!”?)

Reagan castigates “domestic spending,” denies there is hunger in the U.S., while the homeless multiply and bag ladies outnumber debutantes. Instead he uses our money to try to re-install the Somozas in Nicaragua, but screams against sanctions on South Africa!

Where are we, not just the African American people, but the whole U.S. body politic, with a supreme court being fitted for hoods and the plural of mouse as Attorney General, telling us that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to the states!

Well, just for comic relief, let’s imagine we had a president who thought that it was the trees that caused pollution and that we could recall nuclear missiles once they are fired.

You see there is no script for the future. But those of us of the oppressed peoples can revel in the fact that this man is not our leader but our enemy. It is the slaveship, with a captain much like the originals. But in our struggle for liberation is contained the liberation of this society from the ghosts and reasons of its own destruction. As W.E.B. DuBois, the great historian and fighter for African American Liberation said, either America will admit Black people on the basis of Democracy or America will cease to exist. For saying this, he was called “The Most Dangerous Man In America”!