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date: 24 September 2022

Black Power

Black Power

  • Lloren A. Foster

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.

In 1849 Frederick Douglass noted in “No Progress without Struggle” that “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Black Power itself was such a demand, a demand from blacks to the white power structure. Considered a twentieth-century phenomenon, philosophically the rhetoric of Black Power actually finds its origins in the “freedom” discourse of the Declaration of Independence and the discourse on the respect for personhood of the U.S. Constitution. Ironically, this same constitution defined blacks as equaling three-fifths of a human being, and voting rights were conferred to the slave owner. Ideologically, Black Power finds its antecedents in the antislavery rhetoric of the early eighteenth century that fought to change the material reality of enslaved and free blacks.

Black Power was expressed culturally in the early writings of African Americans. The critical discourse of Black Power is seen in the abolitionist writings and speeches of David Walker (Walker's Appeal, 1829), Henry Highland Garnet (“Call to Rebellion” speech, 1843), Martin Delany (Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States, 1852), James T. Holly (A Vindication of the Capacity of the Negro Race for Self--Government and Civilized Progress, 1857), and Alexander Crummell (“The Relations and Duties of Free Colored Men in America to Africa,” 1860, and the “Future of Africa,” 1862): together they show the germinations of a Pan-African consciousness tied to the ideology of self-reliance and self-determinism. Also, the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Bibby argued for Black Power in the abolition of slavery.

After the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, black advances in the political arena led to early realizations of Black Power. In many places blacks numerically outnumbered whites, but through the grandfather clause, the poll tax, literacy tests, and gerrymandering, whites successfully diminished and neutralized the black electorate. The failed promise of Reconstruction, which ended in 1877, left blacks wondering what good “freedom” was without the means to shape its reality or secure its perpetuity by participating in the political process. It took another hundred years after Reconstruction before Black Power would achieve a similar level of success.

Nevertheless, blacks fought on. Oddly enough, though seen as accommodationists, Booker T. Washington and T. Thomas Fortune were early proponents of Black Power ideology in that they supported separate black institutions, but it was W. E. B. Du Bois who broadened the ideology by arguing for the coalition of blacks worldwide in the fight against white domination. Up through the mid-twentieth century, African American missionary efforts to Africa, Ethiopianism, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association—with its back-to-Africa movement—all contained aspects of Black Power. The writers Richard Wright, John Oliver Killens, and James Baldwin argued for Black Power in their creative and critical writings. Also, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X pushed many facets of Black Power in their teachings, and resistance movements across the African continent became independence celebrations that added fuel to the ascendancy of Black Power in the United States.

The historical desire for Black Power is evidenced in the countless riots and rebellions of the early part of the twentieth century, which were physical expressions of the powerless attempting to exercise power. Malcolm X, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, and eventually the Black Panthers reflect this physical nature of Black Power: they believed in blacks' arming themselves to defend themselves and fellow blacks from white violence.

Finally, Black Power and the black church had a love-hate relationship. Christianity played a pivotal role in the measured response of many blacks to their oppression. Part of blacks' accommodating attitude was a function of Christianity's pivotal role in the development of black leaders. Their actions were dictated by their faith in God and the idea that “long suffering” was a virtue. For the most part, blacks cut their political teeth in the church, because in the absence of decent schools, church was the place to learn to read and write and to hone leadership skills; however, the black church was a double-edged sword in the campaign against white rule. In some respects the black church hindered black militancy, but some black theology became a prodigious agitator against the status quo, fostering the revolutionary fervor that gave birth to Black Power.

The 1960s.

Dismantling racially separatist practices led to ideological movements—antislavery, emigration, Pan- Africanism, and black nationalism—each of which was a signification of the self-defining impulse articulated by marginalized blacks. Unfortunately, by the mid-1960s, black leaders had not suggested new paradigms for addressing the real problems that blacks faced.

During the 1960s, assassinations, war, and the struggle for equality took center stage. As the civil rights movement gained steam in the early 1960s, young blacks were visible during the sit-ins, Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and other demonstrations. Chapters of youth-led organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) began to sprout across the United States. These grassroots, direct-action, nonviolent resistance organizations, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), shared similar ideas. Although each desired what could be termed “Black Power,” they differed on the means by which it would be achieved.

Many whites, particularly in the South, defended white supremacy with massive resistance to civil rights workers. The teachings of Malcolm X—that blacks should defend themselves and not be nonviolent to those who were violent to them—spurred an active response from blacks and contributed to the growing impatience and hostility of many blacks. During a protest march in Mississippi in June 1966 and with the prompting of Willie Ricks, the SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael took the stage and called for “Black Power:”

“The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” The crowd was right with him. They picked up his thoughts immediately. “Black Power!” They roared in unison.

(Carmichael and Thelwell, p. 507)

No longer looking for handouts and tired of petitioning whites for redress, many black youths responded enthusiastically to the call for Black Power. Black Power was not about acceptance from whites; instead Black Power advocated blacks defining blackness. Black Power insisted on blacks making the decisions about the tactics, programs, and ideology that would impact their general welfare. It was not that whites were not appreciated or allowed to participate, it was just that blacks came to realize that freedom through negotiation was not the goal. The ultimate goal was liberation.

What was Black Power? Black Power was an organized effort to secure the rights and privileges afforded all citizens through active participation in the political process. Black Power was about deciding who would represent the interests of the black community, which included the redistribution of desperately needed resources. Black Power advocated blacks running for political office on every level and in every facet of government, at the judicial, county, school, and every other level. Nevertheless, what Black Power meant often depended upon who was being asked.

The discourse of Black Power was based on the need for a renewed consciousness along with the simultaneous drive for economic, social, and political self-determination. The discourse of blackness espoused in Black Power was about black pride and raising the consciousness of blacks from the psychological shackles of deference, dependence, and inferiority. Respect, dignity, and the struggle for civil rights were aspects of Black Power. Although focusing on the plight of African Americans, leaders of the civil rights movement included all citizens of the United States in the scope of their demands. As a discourse seeking liberation, Black Power sought to empower the full range of human experiences lumped together under the label “black.”

Black Power Activists. Stokely Carmichael, LeRoi Jones, and H. Rap Brown in Michaux's Bookstore in Harlem, 1967. Photograph by James E. Hinton.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

James Boggs's Marxist analysis saw Black Power as an inevitable response to white supremacy. Likewise, James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, saw Black Power as a logical response to the “absurdity” of the very real lived experience of black folks whose opportunities were limited and genius confiscated because of the color of their skin. Ontologically speaking, blackness was considered antithetical to personhood, and that so-called reality afforded no other response than the call for Black Power and the right to self-definition. Though Carmichael's declaration gave voice to the yearnings of black America, it also created a number of problems for the leadership of the civil rights movement.


Attacked by the NAACP leadership and some members of the SCLC and other civil rights organizations, Black Power was portrayed by the 1960s media as creating a rift between the young and old guards of the civil rights movement. Granted, there were some members of the SCLC and the NAACP who openly attacked the demand for “Black Power.” In reality, no aspect of the civil rights movement could sustain itself without the financial support of liberal whites, who, although sympathetic to the plight of blacks, often advocated patience. Also, whites, and many blacks, found the tenor of Black Power rhetoric unsettling.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was often represented as taken aback by the rhetoric of Black Power; although he held to his position of nonviolence, one can see in his speeches after Carmichael's June 1966 remarks— for instance, in King's speeches on the Vietnam War and on the glacial pace of change in the United States—a shift that understood the need for power to improve the lot of blacks across the nation. King and civil rights proponents wanted blacks to gain the right to vote and participate in the democratic process, thereby choosing representation that reflected the needs of blacks. In short, King did not find Black Power problematic objectively, nor did he publicly denounce Black Power; instead he found “Black Power” as a slogan proffered by the media to be conducive to oversimplification of the real and complex issues confronting the black community.

Despite criticisms that it was a just a fad, Black Power had been the basis of SNCC programming in Alabama and Mississippi and had been articulated long before that day in 1966 in Mississippi when the press latched onto the idea and vilified its proponents. SNCC was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1965.

Media distortion prompted Carmichael and other SNCC organizers to produce written clarifications on the subject of Black Power. The first such compilation was the position paper entitled “Toward Black Liberation,” by Carmichael and Michael Thelwell, published by the Massachusetts Review in autumn 1966. Critics of Black Power took issue with what they considered to be the lack of critical discourse about liberation. In their 1967 book Black Power, Carmichael and Charles Hamilton saw liberation for the many, as opposed to for the token few, as the basis for black Americans' claims for power: “In the first place, black people have not suffered as individuals, but as members of a group; therefore, liberation lies in group action” (p. 54). In short, Carmichael and Hamilton showed that integration was possible only between groups of equal or commensurate power.

The virulence of many whites' response to blacks' demands for power reflected the efficacy of blacks' demands. After the advent of Black Power, blacks and whites castigated proponents of Black Power as racist and “antiwhite.” Further, black women raised charges of sexism against the Black Power leaders, all of whom were male.

Eventually the shouts of “Black Power” that fanned the flames of black unrest and galvanized black youth faded. Carmichael and SNCC organizers understood that mass action lacking the associated consciousness for change was not the formula for liberation. Another, outside criticism of Black Power was that although it galvanized black youth, it created, as the longtime civil rights worker Ella Baker noted, an equally devastating problem for the civil rights movement: “But this [Black Power] began to be taken up, you see, by youngsters who had not gone through any experiences or any steps of thinking and it did become a slogan, much more of a slogan, and the rhetoric was far in advance of the organization for achieving that which you say you're out to achieve” (quoted in Payne, pp. 379–380). Baker's analysis proved prophetic.

Blacks involved in the sit-ins and other demonstrations became disillusioned when little progress seemed to result, and other blacks took to the streets to express their pent-up frustrations over the deaths of such black activists as Medgar Evers in June 1963, Malcolm X in February 1965, and King in April 1968; they particularly did so in the mayhem, death, and destruction of the so-called hot summer of ’68. Unfortunately for blacks, no answers were found in the streets or in the Christian-based pleadings of their leaders.


Black Power had an immediate and long- standing impact on the history and culture of African Americans and U.S. society. Carmichael's call for Black Power reverberated internationally, too, in South Africa's Black-Consciousness Movement. Like Black Power, Black Consciousness was an inward-looking process that proved ineffective without the means of changing the material condition of blacks. In the United States, Black Power spawned the Black Arts Movement, the “black is beautiful” cultural movement, and the black aesthetic literary movement, as well as other forms of political, cultural, and social consciousness.

Black Power Overseas. Black U.S. Marine artillerymen greet each other with clenched fists, the symbol of Black Power, at the large U.S. military base at Con Thien, Vietnam, 1968. Photograph by Johner.

AP Images

Black Power gave substance to a number of organizations that forwarded black pride and uplift, the most notable being the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, in 1966. Though mainly known for their stance on bearing arms in defense of the black community, the Black Panthers started out monitoring police activities and providing free breakfasts and drug and health education in Chicago and Oakland. The impact of the Black Panthers and Black Power resonated at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when two black American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals, raised black gloved fists—the so-called Black Power salute—during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Black and African American studies programs and departments began to sprout up on the campuses of many universities as a direct response to Black Power, and even without a department or specific program, course offerings and faculty focusing on the contributions of African Americans were increased. Eventually Temple University launched the first PhD program in African American studies in 1988. The inclusion of African American studies in the curricula of higher education led to Afrocentric curricula filtering down into the elementary and high schools.

In terms of social consciousness, blacks embraced the idea that “black is beautiful.” According to William L. Van Deburg, Black Power fostered “soulful folk expressions” in fashion, speech, and other forms of expressive culture. The number of movies and television shows depicting blacks increased, and the ascendancy of the Motown, Chicago, Philly, and Memphis sounds helped to fashion the musical stylings of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, the Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, and the many other artists of the 1960s and 1970s who used music to articulate the new “black is beautiful” consciousness.

Across the country, community organizations—including day camps, after-school art programs, and black theater and dance companies—helped develop and uplift black youth. The writer and activist Amiri Baraka (born Everett LeRoi Jones) began the Black Arts Movement as an artistic offshoot of Black Power. Poets and writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni, Woodie King, Haki Madhubuti (born Don L. Lee), Ron Milner, Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange all participated in the Black Arts Movement.

[See also Black Nationalism; Black Panther Party; Black Studies; Civil Rights Movement; Liberation Theology; Pan-Africanism; Radicalism; Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article .]


  • Barbour, Floyd B., ed. Black Power Revolt: A Collection of Essays. Boston: P. Sargent, 1968.
  • Boggs, James. Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Notes from a Black Worker's Notebook. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.
  • Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage, 1967.
  • Carmichael, Stokely, with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell. Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). New York: Scribner, 2003.
  • Payne, Charles M. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • Van Deburg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.