REVISITING THE BLACK POWER MOVEMENT
Updated: Feb 2
A 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was shot dead by Ohio’s Columbus police only a few hours after George Floyd’s killer, former Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter by the jury.[i] The nation was left with little time to celebrate the monumental victory until another member from the black community was made victim to America’s systematic racism. The Black community has had to fight for rights as basic as voting and unfortunately, this long and tedious fight continues to go on.
As the late African American activist Malcolm X once said, "History is a people's memory, and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.".[ii] Therefore, to understand America’s current situation of racism in greater detail, it is important to study the initial struggles for African American freedom.
The Black Power movement
The Black Power Movement was a revolutionary movement whose advocates believed in equal rights, economic empowerment and racial pride for all African Americans.[iii] The movement began when the Civil Rights Movement (1954- 1968) of America was in its final stage. The Civil War was successful in abolishing slavery but failed to put an end to the discrimination inflicted upon Black Americans. They continued to face extreme discrimination and violence especially in southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, South and North Carolina, Virginia etc.[iv] Tired of the constant abuse and the slow pace of change, black Americans hoped to start a movement that was more impactful and powerful than the former.
Martin Luther King Jr. vs Malcolm X
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929- 1968) became the face of the Civil Rights Movement and chose to limit it to non-violent marches, protests, sit-ins and freedom rides.[v] The movement saw many successes but the black community was not satisfied with its results. Due to public dissatisfaction, many civil rights activists chose to migrate from Martin Luther King Jr. to African American leader Malcolm X’s (1925- 1965) ideologies. He argued that Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of non-violence was not feasible for their community. Malcolm believed that unity and integration meant surrendering oneself to white supremacy. Instead, he had a more ambitious plan of promoting and protecting the rights of non-whites from all over the world by forming a rainbow coalition that included people of all colour.[vi]
"It's just like when you've got some coffee that's too black, which means it's too strong. What do you do? You integrate it with cream, you make it weak. But if you pour too much cream in it, you won't even know you ever had coffee. It used to be hot, it becomes cool. It used to be strong, it becomes weak. It used to wake you up, now it puts you to sleep."[vii] This famous statement by Malcolm X highlights his aversion to the idea of his community’s assimilation into America’s white society.
Malcolm X was also a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam- an African American movement organisation of the early 1960s that advocated for racial pride and black nationalism and followed traditional Islam. After reaching a certain level of authority in the organisation, Malcolm X learned to put his charisma and oratory skills to good use. He spoke at major universities like Harvard and Oxford and spent most of his time during the Civil Rights movement expressing his frustration and pent up anger towards the movement’s slow pace and Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas of non-violence and national integration.[viii] The number of young African Americans inspired by Malcolm X’s beliefs went on multiplying in full force, and by the late 1960s, Black Power represented a demand for immediate and violent action to fight white supremacy.
Significance of 1965
1965 was an important year for the Movement due to two important incidents that enraged the public and gave them a reason to join the Black Power Movement. The first incident was the assassination of Malcolm X ( February 21st) and the second was the Watts riots (August 11- 16th).
Malcolm X’s assassination
Malcolm X’s assassination by rival Black Muslims in 1965 added to his popularity and the expansion of his ideas on non-violence. His death ignited the Black Power Movement and numerous young black activists began to view themselves as heir to Malcolm X’s revolutionary philosophy and wished to take over the responsibility of continuing his unfinished work.[ix]
Under the influence of Malcolm X, many black organisations came to existence like the Black Panther Party, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Republic of New Africa, Revolutionary Action Movement and others.[x] The Black Panther Party and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came out as the strongest and most influential black political movement organisations at the time.
The Watts Riots
A 21-year-old Marquette was pulled over in the Watts district of South- Central Los Angeles on suspicion of driving under influence/intoxication. As per police reports, the subject was initially compliant but turned vindictive once his mother and brother showed up at the scene. To tackle him, the police hit his head with a baton, drawing a lot of blood. Aggravated, Marquette’s mother got defensive and jumped on one of the officers back. As a result of this incident, Marquette, along with her brother and mother was put in jail.[xi]
The aftermath of the incident wasn’t in favour of the police by any means. The black community began to protest; protests that turned into riots in little time. Within six days, property worth more than forty million USD was damaged, thirty-four people died, more than a thousand were injured and almost 3500 people were put behind bars. The Watts riots failed to make any significant change in the lives of African Americans but did help in agitating the public and convincing them to join the BPM.[xii]
Most influential Black political organisations
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
The SNCC was a political organisation that began during the civil rights movement (the early 1960s) to give America’s youth a stronger voice. The organisation advocated Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of non-violence and mostly functioned in America’s southern states where racism and oppression were at their peak.[xiii] SNCC’s non-violent protests such as sit-ins and marches brought national attention to itself. But as SNCC strengthened and became more active, it faced increasing instances of violence and hate crime.[xiv] With time, SNCC’s student activists became increasingly frustrated with the government’s lack of support and protection to their community and therefore migrated from a philosophy of nonviolence to that of stronger defence and military action. This decision was made under SNCC’s chairman, Stokely Carmichael. Soon enough, the organisation began to vote out its white members, especially from authority positions and started to gain inspiration from Malcolm X. Resultantly, tensions between the organisation and many veteran civil right leaders increased.[xv] SNCC encouraged its members to separate themselves from the American mainstream and desired to build an exclusively black society.
Black Panther Party
Founded by college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party (1966) had to be the most aggressive organization of the Black Power Movement.[xvi] BPP was a revolutionary organization that advocated armed self-defence, especially against police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan (a far-right white supremacist-terrorist hate group), black nationalism and socialism. Black Panther Party’s goals and ideologies were inspired by Malcolm X, Mao Tse-Tung of the Communist Party of China and Marxist thought.[xvii] Members of the party wore distinctive black leather jackets with black berets and were frequently seen armed even in public places.[xviii]
BPP had a Ten-Point Program that served as its foundation. The points had a very socialist outlook to them and mainly blamed economic exploitation and capitalism as the root causes of America’s oppressive and discriminatory system. Over the years, BPP managed to launch more than thirty-five programs that were meant to help their community, such as the Free Breakfast for Children Program, education, legal aid, transportation assistance, ambulance service, tuberculosis testing and more. Due to the national and international attention BPP received, it was always found on the FBI’s hit list. Infiltration of informers in the party, frequent police raids, imprisoning leaders on bogus charges were some of the many tactics they used to keep the movement under control. Unfortunately for the FBI, the party saw a lot of success, with Australian, Vietnamese activists, India’s Dalits and many more oppressed groups choosing to emulate BPP’s rhetoric. [xix]
Despite so, the Black Panther Party began to decline after their principal leader, Huey Newton, was arrested on murder charges in 1967 after he clashed with the Oakland police causing the death of one policeman and the wounding of another.[xx] The party lost a majority of its power before 1975 but was officially dissolved in 1982.
Racism has existed in the United States of America for hundreds of years and the Black Power Movement is a small yet significant part of the fight against it. The movement not only set a foundation for the Black freedom struggle but also inspired oppressed groups from over the world to fight back and reclaim their power.
Millions of Blacks have killed and died in their fight for equality, but it was their intolerance, passion and rage that was enough to begin a revolution, a revolution that has lived on.
[i] AP. (2021, April 21). Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in George Floyd case. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Indian Express: https://indianexpress.com/article/world/george-floyd-death-verdict-7282146/ [ii] 33 Malcolm X quotes from Successories Quote database. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Successories: https://www.successories.com/iquote/author/8637/malcolm-x-quotes/1 [iii] Odlum, L. (n.d.). The Black Power Movement. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Digital Public library of America: https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-black-power-movement [iv] History.com Editors. (2009, October 27). Civil Rights Movement. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from History: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-movement [v] Tavaanatest. (2015, June 11). Martin Luther King, Jr: Fighting for equal rights in America. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://tolerance.tavaana.org/en/content/martin-luther-king-jr-fighting-equal-rights-america [vi] Jeffries, J. L. (2021, April 24). ." international Encyclopaedia of the social SCIENCES. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Apr. 2021 . Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/sociology-and-social-reform/social-reform/black-power-movement [vii] 33 Malcolm X quotes from Successories Quote database. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Successories: https://www.successories.com/iquote/author/8637/malcolm-x-quotes/1 [viii] Mamiya, L. A. (n.d.). Malcolm X. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Malcolm-X [ix] Jeffries, J. L. (2021, April 24). ." international Encyclopaedia of the social SCIENCES. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Apr. 2021 . Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/sociology-and-social-reform/social-reform/black-power-movement [x] Jeffries, J. L. (2021, April 24). ." international Encyclopaedia of the social SCIENCES. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Apr. 2021 . Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/sociology-and-social-reform/social-reform/black-power-movement [xi] Jerkins, M. (2020, August 03). Watts riots show black history is full of heavy memories. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Time: https://time.com/5873228/watts-riots-memory/ [xii] Edy, J. A. (n.d.). Watts riots of 1965. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Watts-Riots-of-1965 [xiii] History.com Editors. (2009, November 12). SNCC. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from History: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sncc [xiv] Student nonviolent coordinating committee. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Student-Nonviolent-Coordinating-Committee [xv] Student nonviolent coordinating committee. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Student-Nonviolent-Coordinating-Committee [xvi] Carson, C., Carson, M., & Buhle et al, M. J. (n.d.). Black Panther Party. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://web.stanford.edu/~ccarson/articles/am_left.htm [xvii] Easley, B. (n.d.). The Black Panther Party. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/black-power/black-panthers#bpintro [xviii] Carson, C., Carson, M., & Buhle et al, M. J. (n.d.). Black Panther Party. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://web.stanford.edu/~ccarson/articles/am_left.htm [xix] Duncan, G. A. (n.d.). Black Panther Party. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from Britannica https://www.britannica.com/topic/Black-Panther-Party [xx] Carson, C., Carson, M., & Buhle et al, M. J. (n.d.). Black Panther Party. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://web.stanford.edu/~ccarson/articles/am_left.htm
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About the author: Priyanka Lohia is a second-year Journalism student with key interests in religion, international and domestic politics and history. Tags- Racism, Black Power Movement, Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King JR., Malcolm X, USA, Black Panther Party, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Rights, Revolution, Struggle