We Are Gonna Start Saying "Black Power"

"We Are Gonna Start Saying 'Black Power'": The Political, Economic, and Artistic Aspects of the Black Power Movement

Ashley Farmer
Department of African and African American Studies
Harvard University

Intended Audience: high school students


In 1966, the activist Stokely Carmichael was arrested in Mississippi after his well-documented participation in James Meredith's March Against Fear. Bailed out of jail by the community leader Willie Ricks, an agitated Carmichael exclaimed to some six hundred of his fellow marchers at an evening rally that his previous arrest would be his final one. The only way to ensure against future arrests, Carmichael warned, was for black Americans to "take over" and for black communities to organize around the principle of black power. While many are familiar with this legendary cry for "Black Power," and mark it as the start of the black power movement, the origins and manifestations of black power as a political, economic, and cultural philosophy encompass more than just the reaction to Carmichael's call to arms. Beginning in the late 1950s and lasting through the late 1970s, black power organizing was extensive, engaging in tactics intended to change every aspect of black life including culture, food, sports, politics, and economics. Fundamental to all of these ideas of black empowerment was the notion that black Americans needed self-control, self-empowerment, self-determination, and community control.

This lesson plan focuses on the primary black power activists, the political and economic expressions of black power, and cultural visions of black power in order to provide students with an overview of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s. It is intended to be an introduction to the major leaders and organizations of the movement and the major ideological strains of black power.


It is the hope that upon completing the lesson students will able to:

  1. Identify the major leaders, intellectuals, and organizations of the black power movement—both male and female.
  2. Identify major organizations involved in the black power movement and their specific ideological trajectory for achieving black power.
  3. Understand that black power as an ideological philosophy and organizing principle lacked cohesion, but that this made for creative interpretations of black empowerment and organizing.
  4. Situate the black power movement in the larger context of black freedom struggles.

I. Which Path to Power?

This unit gives a short overview of the basis of the different ideological branches that black power took both intellectually and organizationally. Starting with overviews of black nationalism by Jeffery Ogbar and by Gaye T. Tate, who focuses on women's role in creating black nationalism, the unit seeks to situate the black power movement in the larger trajectory of black nationalist organizing. Ogbar and Tate's overviews give students basic definitions of strains of black nationalism including cultural nationalism. After students have a basic overview, entries on the black power movement in the United States can lend greater specificity to the activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, asking students to read "The Black Arts Movement" can further help them understand the depth and breadth of black power strategies.



Ask students to identify at least one black nationalist and one black power leader and use them as a lens through which to explain the differences between black nationalism and black power. Students should then construct a short essay that reflects their findings about the historical factors that gave rise to black power and posits reasons why black power in particular was so popular in the 1960s.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What are the different variations of black nationalism and how are they different?
  2. Discuss what was unique about the black power movement.

II. Black Power vs. Civil Rights

After students have a firm grasp on the contours of black power, it is important that they understand the ways in which it differed from the contemporaneous civil rights movement. This unit is designed to allow students to explore the differences—real or perceived—between the civil rights and black power movements. Ask students to read the biographies of individual leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. and black power leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Students should supplement their discussion of major leaders with a close examination of the speeches of each leader in order to better understand how they defined black power and civil rights, and the major differences between the two movements and methods.

AASC Documents:


During the height of black protest in the 1960s, the national media showcased leaders, organizations of the civil rights, and black power movements in order to bring their differing messages to the public. The photos, television specials, and live recordings of civil rights and black power leaders promulgated by the press were among the critical media through which the American public understood the distinctions and disagreements between civil rights and black power leaders. Ask students to read each of the speeches and watch the films designated for this lesson and choose a particular primary source that interests them. Give them the following assignment:

You are a press secretary for a major American news network. You must write a press release, to be sent to television stations and newspaper presses, about the civil rights or black power leader and speech of your choice that clearly explains the speakers' position on civil rights or black power as a method for achieving black freedom. You must clearly delineate for your audience the importance of the author of the speech as well as explain to your audience why their approach to achieving black rights is different from and/or similar to other leaders.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What are the differences in goals and tactics of the civil rights and black power movements?
  2. Based on the speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X, what are the similarities in approach or goals in the civil rights and black power movement?
  3. How do the leaders justify their position on the issue of civil rights vs. black power?

III. Organizing for Black Power

From the previous unit, students should be able to discern that black power took on many different forms and that it was often different in character from the civil rights movement. This section examines the lives and work of the foremost progenitors of black power thought. It is intended to highlight the major leaders and thinkers in the movement as well as show their personal interest in black power and their personal connections to other members of the movement. Where possible, individuals are paired with entries on organizations in order for students to see the relationship between the ideological outlook of the individual and how this ideology was mobilized into concrete action. Students should look at the entry on Queen Mother Moore to show how black women and men sometimes combined multiple strains of black power to reach their goals. Entries such as the one on Robert F. Williams will also show students lesser known black power radicals and their connections with moderate civil rights organizations. The Williams and Malcolm X articles together should highlight the interpersonal relationships among radicals in the black power movement and their similar ideological frames. Having students read the entries on Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party as well as Amiri Baraka and the Congress of African Peoples—two leaders and organizations who understood themselves as continuing the work of Malcolm X in very different ways—is also a way to have students think about the ways African Americans conceptualized black power. Finally, looking at Roy Innis and his work in the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) can highlight the ways in which civil rights organizations moved toward a black nationalist agenda.



Have students divide up into representatives of different black power organizations, leaving a few students as undecided activists. Ask them to hold a "black power rally" where they try to explain why their particular organization has the best course of action. When organizing the rally, suggest to students ways in which black power organizations garnered support for their cause using pamphlets, buttons, speeches, banners, and posters. Allow students to explore these media when they are developing their presentation on their organization for the rally.

Each organization/ student presentation should have:

  1. A speech that explains who they are and where/why they were founded;
  2. A platform that explains how their approach is different from that of moderate civil rights leaders and distinguishes the primary leaders of their organization;
  3. posters, buttons, banners, or some sort of media that promotes their organizations.

Designate a small group of students as undecided activists looking to join a new organization. Have the representatives of each organization give a presentation to try to sway the undecided students to join their organization and cause. Undecided students must also present the reasoning behind their choice to join a particular organization or cause.

Guiding Questions:

  1. What personal experiences guided the political and social outlook of these particular individuals?
  2. What vision of "black power" did each of these individuals and organizations advocate?
  3. Are any of the individuals' or organizations' goals conflicting with others? In what ways?
  4. Why did groups like CORE and the SNCC adopt a more militant approach as the black power movement gained more followers?
  5. Ask students about why it seems that the leadership of the black power movement was predominately male.

IV. Black Arts Movement and Cultural Black Nationalism

While the previous unit focused on those individuals and organizations who believed that black power was to be achieved by economic or political means, this section focuses on those who believed that black art and black culture were critical to achieving the goals of black power. Students should look at an overview of the black arts movement to better understand the ways in which activists understood black arts as contributing to the goals of black power. This overview should help students contextualize individual artists and activists who were critical to the development of the black arts movement. It should also help them think about the ways in which black power activists diversified the idea of "the arts" through changes in celebrations, cultural practices, dress, literature, and art.



Ask students to research and create a presentation about the life of one of the major figures of the Black Arts Movement or a major figure in cultural nationalism using their biographies and at least one other historical source. Students should be asked to identify the importance of black arts and/or black culture in the given figure's life, outline at least two of the figure's major literary and/or artistic works, and posit a claim about how black art and/or black culture was critical to developing black power ideals.

Guiding Questions:

  1. Why was art important to black empowerment?
  2. How was the black arts movement different from other artistic movements in the African American community like the Harlem Renaissance?
  3. Which do you find more persuasive for achieving black power: ideals of self-determination and racial pride measures aimed at creating black culture or measures aimed at creating black political and economic power?