Black Power became a national phenomenon shortly after James Meredith began a one-man march from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi, on 5 June 1966. Although Meredith had been the first black student to enter the University of Mississippi, his announcement that he would undertake a “March against Fear” attracted little attention. On the first day of the march, however, an unidentified sniper shot him in the leg. In response, nationally known civil rights leaders banded together and continued the march while Meredith recovered. These leaders attracted not only the media but also scores of black Mississippi residents who participated in the march and in voter registration rallies across the state.
Although a number of movement leaders participated, the combination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) primarily attracted the national media and propagated the Black Power philosophy. This new approach to civil rights advocated independence from white authority through cultural pride and economic and political strategies. But the media tended to focus on a more controversial component, the promotion of self-defense in the face of violence. This new notion of empowerment represented a dramatic change from the nonviolent philosophy that had previously surrounded much of the movement.
Carmichael, chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), had already considered the slogan and believed that it would arouse emotion and encourage more movement participation among black citizens. But Black Power was far more than a slogan. It was a new approach to winning civil rights that would influence the nation’s social and racial convictions for years to come. The concept became the centerpiece of a campaign that instilled cultural pride and promoted the idea that blacks should resist the horrific circumstances that often led to poverty, illiteracy, entrapment, and fear.
Black Power transcended organizational structure. But since Carmichael headed SNCC, that organization became a central source for communicating the Black Power message. Carmichael and others had first discussed and used the Black Power ideas (although not the phrase) while working to register voters in Lowndes County, Alabama, in the summer of 1965. Although the slogan did not appear for another year, the powerful and iconic Black Panther political symbol first emerged as a tactic to encourage voter registration in Lowndes County.
The phrase Black Power was a condensed version of an older slogan, Black Power for Black People, which had previously been used by African and African American activists, poets, and writers. Carmichael, however, is credited with introducing the shorter version and using it to propel a new stage of the civil rights movement that officially began during Meredith’s march through Mississippi.
During parts of the march, Carmichael walked alongside King, who discussed nonviolence as a strategy. Carmichael, however, suggested alternatives that essentially included self-empowerment and self-defense rather than acquiescence to violence. The media were captivated.
When Carmichael arrived in Greenville, Mississippi, he was arrested for refusing to dismantle tents set up for an evening rally. After spending several hours in jail, he returned to the rally site and proclaimed to the crowd, “What we are going to start saying now is Black Power.” The crowd responded passionately, and the Black Power philosophy became a central and defining component of the movement.
Almost instantly, Carmichael became the Black Power spokesperson, and he was well equipped for the job. He was handsome, articulate, intelligent, and ideally suited for the increasingly available and exciting medium of television. Ironically, Carmichael’s popularity with the media encouraged his resignation from SNCC the following year. The group’s workers wanted a broader focus, while the media seemed content to focus on one dynamic man with a dynamic message.
SNCC’s new chair, H. Rap Brown, was far more radical than Carmichael and frequently suggested that violence should be used in the fight for civil rights. Consequently, Black Power and SNCC became increasingly associated with violence. Many former supporters deserted the group, which largely dissolved in 1968.
Black Power was not exclusive to SNCC, and many groups and individuals adopted the philosophy throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Panther Party, based in Oakland, California, was the most notable organization, but because it received a good deal of criticism for activities associated with violence, the Black Power movement lost momentum. When the group split in 1972, the Black Power movement began to fade. Nevertheless, Black Power continued to instill community and cultural pride in black America and had a lasting effect.
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (1985)
- Charles V. Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1992)
- Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006)
- William L. VanDeburg, New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975 (1992)
- Rhonda Y. Williams: Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century American Social and Political Movements in the 20th Century (2015)