9/3/11

A White Take on Black Power 50 Years Later



Revised and edited August, 2012

Black Power was exercised before 1965. Black power is as old as this country. 

As a white veteran of the civil rights movement, I am among a vanishing pool of persons now being asked by the teachers and students of the 21st century to think about the movement of the 1960s - what it meant and what it means today. 

Here are answers to one such query. Questions are summarized. They come from a student in UK. 

How much actual contrast was there between the Civil Rights movement prior to 1965 and the movement afterward when Black Power appeared as a public phenomenon? 

Few of the contentions of public Black Power advocates like Carmichael, Cleaver, Foreman and Brown were new in a country built largely on the drama of race. 

Black Power in its essence was not new.  

The idea of the Beloved Community fostered by Dr. King and inspiriting the movement in the early 1960s was what was new. 

In context, Black Power, as it attained media currency in 1965, served the establishment as one element leading to collapse of the King movement. By the mid-1960s the King movement had of necessity created a full-blown radical critique of the United States that has yet to be fully understood. 

Wasn't Black Power a slap in the face to white society which expanded its reach in the Black community? 

As suggested, the attitudes of Black Power were hardly new. The rhetoric of Black Power was indeed a turning point for many in the movement. It said, in essence, this is not Black and white together. Get lost, whitey.. 

I cannot speak to the liberation Black Power brought to Blacks in the movement. The efforts identified with Black Power were often carried out by Blacks and whites together. The real or implied violence of some of those efforts was hardly liberating. 

Both the Beloved Community side of the movement and the Black Power side were subsumed in the avalanche made up of Vietnam and the three seminal assassinations of post-1965. My hero remains Malcolm X because he was to me the most conspicuous example of Black liberation - having arrived at a universal understanding not that remote from that of Dr. King -  the result of a trip Malcolm made to Mecca shortly before his death. 

Was Black Power rhetoric a gift to whites who did not want to be involved in any sort of movement for racial justice? 

I suppose it provided a rationale for avoiding reality. But so was Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy. 

The Obama era witnesses a playing out of the same dynamic and the President's interpretation of it in his Philadelphia speech remains spot on. 

Was Black Power an effort to create a mass movememt among Blacks who had little interest in or involvement in the nonviolent movement? 

I think that this may have been an intent, but there was no mass movement after King. Nor did organizations like SNCC have a growing influence once their earlier movement activism sought to shade into the constricted modes of Black power rhetoric. 

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