SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966

By Jeffries, Hasan Kwame | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

SNCC, Black Power, and Independent Political Party Organizing in Alabama, 1964-1966


Jeffries, Hasan Kwame, The Journal of African American History


"What do we want?" shouted Stokely Carmichael, the 24-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He repeated the question a half dozen times to the crowd of 600 gathered on 16 June 1966 at the Leflore County, Mississippi, schoolyard for a rally in support of James Meredith's "March Against Fear." Each time the crowd roared back, "Black Power! We want Black Power!" (1) The importance of this moment in the summer of 1966 has been well established in the literature on the modern Civil Rights Movement. It was the highpoint of the Meredith March and not only introduced a more radical slogan into the protest lexicon of African Americans, but also ushered in a new phase in the on-going black freedom struggle. Unfortunately, the actual meaning that Carmichael and his fellow SNCC organizers attached to the phrase "Black Power," as well as the political process that led them to embrace the more militant ideology, has become somewhat muddled over time.

The meaning of Black Power was never a mystery to Carmichael and his comrades. In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, published the year after the Meredith March, Carmichael and his co-author, political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, explained that above all else the slogan meant organizing independent, African American power bases, an approach to political change that SNCC activists deemed necessary because existing electoral forms and structures did not permit African Americans to participate in political decision-making. They added that independent political mobilization was the first step toward organizing these power bases. "It is not enough to add more and more people to the voter rolls and then send them into the old 'do-nothing,' compromise-oriented political parties," they wrote. "Those new voters will only become frustrated and alienated." (2) Cleveland Sellers, SNCC's program secretary, pointed out that when SNCC members spoke of Black Power, "it was in a political context of building political ... and social institutions in the Black community where we worked." (3)

The sequence of events that prompted SNCC's call for Black Power was also no secret to the group's members. They understood that the fieldwork that grassroots activists had conducted in some of the most dangerous regions of the South had sparked their interest in the ideology. Writing in the New York Review of Books in September 1966, Carmichael explained that Black Power had "grown out of the ferment of agitation and activity by different people and organizers in many black communities over the years." Foremost was SNCC organizers' work with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an all-black, countywide, third-party that fielded a full slate of African American candidates for local office in 1966 in a bold bid to wrest political control of the county courthouse away from white supremacist Democrats. (4) By demonstrating the viability of independent political parties, the LCFO inspired SNCC's brand of Black Power. Indeed, Ivanhoe Donaldson, the director of SNCC's New York office, maintained that, "SNCC's Alabama experience was the immediate genesis of the concept of Black Power." (5)

Despite the clear vision of the meaning and origin of Black Power that Carmichael and his fellow organizers possessed, a cloud of confusion enveloped the slogan shortly after it surfaced. Popular narratives of the ideology insisted that Black Power had emerged from the flames of the inner city rebellions that had scorched America's urban landscape beginning with the Harlem uprising in 1964. These accounts also claimed that Black Power was the intellectual offspring of impulsive emotionalism--a child of black rage. In addition, they maintained that Black Power meant racial separation and using violence against whites. In the minds of many, Black Power was little more than an illogical "hate whitey" ideology, and those who heralded its coming, especially Carmichael, were race radicals who had hijacked SNCC and transformed it into a "get whitey" organization. …

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