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Black History Special Book Review: Redefining ‘Black Power’

Images from the heyday of the Black Power movement live on in popular culture, but the view tends to be blurred. Most people probably consider it as a blip on the 400-year chronology of race relations in America. While some Americans romanticize the movement, others remember it as a short-lived, inflammatory and ill-advised crusade that ran against the tide of peaceful efforts to gain and protect civil rights.

Dr. Peniel E. Joseph dips into the warehouse of history to sharpen the picture, making the case that the Black Power movement co-existed with, drew from and contributed to the nonviolent civil rights movement in many ways. He says many people had a foot in both camps.

“Black Power did not suddenly appear in Northern cities after 1965 as an alternative to civil rights activism,” he writes. “Instead, it existed alongside its more celebrated Southern-based counterpart.”

Joseph, a professor of African-American studies at Tufts University uses clear, penetrating words to spin out rich details. To do so, he pulls threads from many resources, including the works of other scholars, media reports and the files the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept on those working hardest for justice in that paranoid era.

He demonstrates that the battle led by more demanding voices in what he calls “the most misunderstood social movement of the postwar era” began much earlier than we tend to think of it and lasted much longer, ultimately becoming the springboard for political gains that led to the White House.

Joseph’s work focuses on the roles of Stokely Carmichael, who first projected the phrase “Black Power” into the lexicon, and Malcolm X, who personified the ideas encapsulated in it.

Carmichael, then the new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, became the face of the Black Power movement when he used the term after his arrest for his role in demonstrations in Mississippi in June 1966. He led an effort, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to continue the march James Meredith was attempting when he was shot a few days earlier.

According to Joseph, Carmichael said: “This is the 27th time that I have been arrested. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power.”

Carmichael defined it as a call for Blacks “to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community … to define their own goals, to build their own organizations.” What people heard was a rallying cry for militancy that scared White people (and many Black people), stirred up a firestorm of media attacks and inspired the rise of the arms-bearing Black Panthers.

What is less known or deliberately obscured about Carmichael is that he was an old-school civil-rights worker who had spent years in grassroots organizing among sharecroppers and other disenfranchised people in the rural South. An Alabama group he nicknamed the Black Panther Party concentrated on harnessing political power to elect Blacks to office. He had a brief association later with the Black Panthers, based in Oakland, Calif., who emphasized militant tactics to redress urban problems.

Similarly, Joseph demonstrates that while Malcolm X is largely remembered for his rhetoric, his strength was in organizing too. The author recalls Malcolm X’s beginnings in the Nation of Islam in the early 1950s, establishing mosques and cultivating alliances with leaders in politics, religion, media and the arts in the United States and around the world. He was so effective that the FBI began heightened surveillance on him by 1958. Though the Muslim leader is often portrayed as the polar opposite of King, Joseph argues that the two men had much in common and inspired each other’s work.

Malcolm X’s contribution, Joseph argues, was to “advance a constructive and radical political dialogue about Black people’s future in America and around the world. Part of this national conversation included a critical engagement with democracy.”

Engagement increasingly would involve the electoral process. The organizing experience that both movements’ leaders amassed soon led Black activists to draw up an agenda for progress, run for office or put forth candidates. The beneficiaries of this extension of the movement are the citizens of today, as well as the office holders, notably President Barack Obama.

Although Obama never fully credited the Black Power forerunners, Joseph argues that if this former community organizer’s “election permanently altered the aesthetics of American democracy, then the civil rights and Black Power era provided the historical context for this watershed moment.”

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