COMMENTARY: At 50, ‘Black Power’ and changing times

The phrase or slogan “Black Power” turns 50 this year. Whether credited to Adam Clayton Powell in a May 1966 address at Howard University or to Stokely Carmichael at a June 1966 Mississippi rally following the shooting of James Meredith, the slogan’s immediate impact on the civil rights movement is unquestioned, though its long-term legacy is more complicated.

By way of meaning, Black Power advocates a number of related goals, from self-sufficiency for African Americans, to promoting black collective interests, to defending against racial oppression. For some, its use coincided with the end of the civil rights movement. However, it would be a mistake to regard it as such. Rather, the slogan ushered in a new, updated, period of the movement which replaced nonviolence with direct action and allied with other causes.

The phrase’s initial employment followed the divisive and contradictory events of 1965, which included the triumph of the Voting Rights Act and Great Society programs on one hand and the expansion of the Vietnam War, assassination of Malcolm X, and race riots on the other hand.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Following its initial utilization, the slogan acted as a catalyst for subsequent political developments. For instance, the slogan contributed to the founding and views of the Black Panthers, established in fall 1966.

It spread to movements in Jamaica and Britain in the late 1960s. Clearly, the 1972 National Black Political Convention was a consequence of the movement. Because it forced facing issues of democracy and equality, the Black Power movement affected later social justice movements, including feminism, environmentalism, affirmative action, and Native American activism, among others.

Too, there were social and cultural consequences of the Black Power era. Among these was the controversy which ensued at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when two American athletes gave the Black Power salute while receiving their medals. The Black Power slogan led to artistic creations which embodied liberation, empowerment, and pride. The Black Arts Movement was an outgrowth of the Black Power movement. Other phrases, such as “Black is Beautiful,” were likewise employed in conjunction with the movement.

While standout African American athletes such as Muhammad Ali may not have used the phrase extensively, they understood its meaning and agreed with its aspirations.

Just as the seminal employment of the Black Power phrase created controversy within the black community and between people of different races, so its legacy is seen as similarly split.

In 2015, members of the Black Lives Matter movement displayed Black Power symbols in highlighting police abuse. In 2016, the U.S. Military Academy launched an inquiry after 16 black female cadets were photographed with their fists raised. Rather than engaging in a forbidden political activity, the students stated that they were celebrating their forthcoming graduation as a shared accomplishment.

Whether interpreted as a movement of protest or unity, Black Power evidently still means diverse things to different people. But for its supporters, the times have changed more than the consistent message behind it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He chaired the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005-2010 and is a life member of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP.

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