A New Civil Rights Movement

54i. Black Power

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
During the October 16, 1968 awards ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics, U.S. gold and bronze medallists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raise their arms and fists in a Black Power salute.

On June 5, 1966, James Meredith was shot in an ambush as he attempted to complete a peaceful march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Meredith had already made national headlines in 1962 by becoming the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

Civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Floyd McKissick of CORE, and Stokely Carmichael of SNCC rushed to Meredith's hospital bed. They determined that his march must be completed. As Carmichael and McKissick walked through Mississippi, they observed that little had changed despite federal legislation. Local townspeople harassed the marchers while the police turned a blind eye or arrested the activists as troublemakers.

Original Black Panthers
The "Black Panther Party for Self Defense" was formed to protect Black individuals and neighborhoods from police brutality. This 1966 photo features the six original members of the Black Panthers.

At a mass rally, Carmichael uttered the simple statement: "What we need is black power." Crowds chanted the phrase as a slogan, and a movement began to flower.

Carmichael and McKissick were heavily influenced by the words of Malcolm X, and rejected integration as a short-term goal. Carmichael felt that blacks needed to feel a sense of racial pride and self-respect before any meaningful gains could be achieved. He encouraged the strengthening of African American communities without the help of whites.

Skin lightener advertisement
The Black Power movement turned popular fashion and aesthetics on end. In the 1930s, skin lighteners and hair straighteners were used by fashionable black women in an effort to look whiter. By the end of the 1960s, being proud of the African heritage dictated that afros and dark skin were desirable.

Chapters of SNCC and CORE — both integrated organizations — began to reject white membership as Carmichael abandoned peaceful resistance. Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP denounced black power as the proper forward path. But black power was a powerful message in the streets of urban America, where resentment boiled and tempers flared.

Soon, African American students began to celebrate African American culture boldly and publicly. Colleges teemed with young blacks wearing traditional African colors and clothes. Soul singer James Brown had his audience chanting "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud." Hairstyles unique to African Americans became popular and youths proclaimed, "Black is beautiful!"

That same year, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale took Carmichael's advice one step further. They formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Openly brandishing weapons, the Panthers decided to take control of their own neighborhoods to aid their communities and to resist police brutality. Soon the Panthers spread across the nation. The Black Panther Party borrowed many tenets from socialist movements, including Mao Zedong's famous creed "Political power comes through the barrel of a gun." The Panthers and the police exchanged gunshots on American streets as white Americans viewed the growing militancy with increasing alarm.

Black Panther Party

In 1966, the Black Panther Party offered a list of their wants and beliefs. Drawing from the language of the Declaration of Independence, the document made a powerful statement about the state of race relations in the United States at the time.

Platform & Program
October 1966

1. WE WANT freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.

WE BELIEVE that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.

2. WE WANT full employment for our people.

WE BELIEVE that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the white American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.

3. WE WANT an end to the robbery by the CAPITALIST of our Black Community.

WE BELIEVE that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

4. WE WANT decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.

WE BELIEVE that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.

5. WE WANT education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.

WE BELIEVE in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does nothave knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.

6. WE WANT all black men to be exempt from military service.

WE BELIEVE that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.

7. WE WANT an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.

WE BELIEVE we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all black people should arm themselves for self- defense.

8. WE WANT freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.

WE BELIEVE that all black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.

9. WE WANT all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.

WE BELIEVE that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the black community from which the black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the "average reasoning man" of the black community.

10. WE WANT land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.

WHEN, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

WE HOLD these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. **That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.** Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. **But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

The peaceful Civil Rights Movement was dealt a severe blow in the spring of 1968. On the morning of April 4, King was gunned down by a white assassin named James Earl Ray. Riots spread through American cities as African Americans mourned the death of their most revered leader. Black power advocates saw the murder as another sign that white power must be met with similar force. As the decade came to a close, there were few remaining examples of legal discrimination. But across the land, de facto segregation loomed large. Many schools were hardly integrated and African Americans struggled to claim their fair share of the economic pie.

Instant Quiz

What Supreme Court decision declared that the separation of blacks and whites was legal as long as the societies were equal?

    Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
    Roe v. Wade
    Plessy v. Fergussen
    Marbury v. Madison

Which of the following was NOT a result of the Montgomery bus boycott?

    Having been proven ineffective, civil disobedience was abandoned by protestors in favor of more violent methods.
    Violence erupted, including the bombing of homes and churches.
    The Supreme Court ruled the segregation of buses unconstitutional.
    Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

Who were the Little Rock Nine?

    An elite squadron of the Arkansas National Guard
    A group of African American students who tried to attend an all-white school
    A group of student protestors arrested at a sit-in
    A group of African American intellectuals who espoused nonviolent resistance.

What was the goal of the freedom riders?

    To help protestors escape police
    To transport African Americans to places with less strict segregation laws
    To provide privately owned buses during the Montgomery bus boycott
    To end segregation on interstate transportation

Which of the following was NOT an effect of the Civil Rights Act?

    It became illegal to refuse employment to an individual on the basis of race
    Segregation of any public facilities became illegal.
    Focus shifted to the fight for African American voting rights.
    Riots broke out in Watts, Harlem, Rochester, Jersey City, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

Why was the Kerner Commission created?

    To find a peaceful method of desegregating schools
    To help police handle increasing numbers of protestors
    To investigate violations of African American voting rights.
    To investigate the causes of rioting in the mid-60s

Which of the following was NOT a goal of the Nation of Islam?

    The integration of black and white societies
    The establishment of black schools and support networks
    An increase in feelings of black pride and black nationalism
    The abandonment of white Christianity in favor of Islam.

The Maoist tenet "Political power comes through the barrel of a gun" was adopted by which group?

    Southern Christian Leadership Conference
    Black Panther Party

On the Web
SNCC: 1960-66
This well-designed site focuses on the first six years of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). The organization was founded at Shaw University in Raleigh to organize the sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement. This site does not focus heavily on Stokely Carmichael's more radical, militant leadership, which began in 1966. But understanding the original philosophy of SNCC is essential to any study of the changing dynamic of Black Power throughout the '60s.
Black Panther Party and Platform, October 1966
Demand #6: "WE WANT all black men to be exempt from military service." Read the 10-point proclamation from the group that both offered a voice to the marginalized and terrified the mainstream during the turbulent 1960s.

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