Rethinking the Black Power Era

By Joseph, Peniel E. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the Black Power Era


Joseph, Peniel E., The Journal of Southern History


CONVENTIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS NARRATIVES TAKE IT AS ACCEPTED WISDOM that the Black Power movement undermined struggles for racial justice: the authors differ more in the degree of condemnation than in their analyses of its self-destructive impact. The movement's bracing, at times violent, rhetoric, misogyny, and bravado have made it an easy target for both demonization and dismissal but rarely a subject of rigorous historical research. In the increasingly complex historiography of the civil rights movement, Black Power is most often seen as a negative counterpart to more righteous struggles for racial integration, social justice, and economic equality.

Black Power stands at the center of narratives of the decline of the 1960s reform efforts, with its destructive reach poisoning the New Left's innocence, corrupting a generation of black activists, and steering the civil rights movement off course in a manner that reinforced racial segregation by allowing politicians an easily defined and frightening scapegoat. The backlash that followed seemingly upended the civil rights movement's potential to establish new democratic frontiers and turned instead to the easy comfort of identity politics and political correctness. The rough outlines of this story provide the basis for scholarly framing of the movement as an unabashed failure. (1)

Black Power's impact on American democracy remains undertheorized. In documenting a richer, more nuanced, and expansive history of the era, new scholarship is placing the movement' s critique of postwar racial liberalism and American democracy at the core of Black Power' s evolution. In doing so the focus of the era shifts from a top-down recitation of the speeches and controversies that enveloped well-known activists to a ground-level view of the ways in which ordinary blacks utilized the movement's ethos to make their lives better. Black Power scandalized America in the 1960s, but its apparent novelty masked a deeper history. The movement's heyday is marked in the American imagination by race riots, gun-toting black militants, and the cultural flourishes of bold Afros, African dashikis, and militant poetry. Beyond the era's verbal pyrotechnics, racial controversies, and stylistic bombast is a fascinating history of social and political transformation--one that at times shared common goals and objectives, if not strategies and tactics, with the more richly documented civil rights movement. The Black Power movement represents a largely unchronicled epic in American history.

Black Power fundamentally altered struggles for racial justice through an uncompromising quest for social, political, and cultural transformation. The movement's sheer breadth during the late 1960s and early 1970s encompassed virtually every facet of African American political life in the United States and beyond. (2) Black college students protested for curricular changes that culminated in the development of black studies programs and departments at universities around the nation. African American politicians tapped into the groundswell of racial solidarity to help build urban political machines that elected black mayors in cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, Newark, and Gary, Indiana, and led to the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus. (3) Black women utilized the militancy of the movement's urgent rhetoric to articulate a bold feminist vision (one that was often critical of Black Power's misogyny) and to assert their rights to expansive social services, especially in relation to bread-and-butter issues such as housing, education, and welfare. (4) Proponents of the movement's cultural side trafficked in well-orchestrated displays of militancy that featured raised fists and African cultural elements and advocated the building of racially separate schools, communities, and even states as an antidote to institutional racism. (5) Black Panthers served free breakfast to schoolchildren in urban settings such as Oakland, New Haven, and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, while simultaneously engaging in open confrontation with local, state, and federal authorities that escalated into spectacular political theater that ranged from mass demonstrations to violent confrontations. …

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