Table of Contents:Further Readings
Cracks in the Civil Rights Movement
Chants of "black power," the slogan popularized by Stokely Carmichael and other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Mississippi freedom march of June 1966, were the first signs for most of the American public that some factions in the civil rights movement were beginning to question the methods of nonviolent protest advocated by the movement's popular and widely admired leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King argued to Carmichael and Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) that "black power" had connotations of violence that would (and in fact did) frighten white supporters of the civil rights movement, but Carmichael, who agreed not to use the slogan for the remainder of the march, was already convinced—as was McKissick—that passive resistance to physical force and building coalitions with sympathetic whites, the means through which the movement had already achieved most of its goals, would never make blacks fully equal with whites, who still held the reins of economic and political power and were unwilling to let go.
SNCC and Black Power
Resenting King for attracting media attention while they had done much of the hard work of running black-voter-registration drives in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama in 1961-1965—and accusing him of overconcern with his own safety when they had risked death daily in those states—many members of SNCC had come to believe that self-defense was not only justified but wise. More important, the failure of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, organized by SNCC to unseat the regular, all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, brought around much of SNCC to a point of view already espoused by Carmichael: blacks should stop trying to reform the Democratic Party, he said; that would be like the Jews trying to change the Nazi party from within. Instead, he decided, blacks should form their own political party.
Carmichael's Black Panthers
In March 1965 Carmichael took the first step toward his goal in Lowndes County, Alabama, where not a single black was registered to vote, even though the population was predominantly black. As Carmichael's coworker Cleveland Sellers explained, "We intended to register as many blacks as we could, all of them if possible, and take over the county." Helped by the arrival in August of federal registrars sent under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and undeterred by the murder of a civil rights worker, hundreds of blacks in Lowndes County registered to vote every day. In March 1966 black farmers and domestic workers formed their own political party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), whose symbol—a snarling black panther—was the source of their unofficial name, the Black Panthers. By then black registered voters in the county outnumbered white voters by a large enough margin to convince members of LCFO that they could take over the county government. In the November 1966 elections they put up a full slate of black candidates for county offices and expected to win. Yet stuffed ballot boxes and other voting irregularities ensured their total defeat. While the LCFO chairman declared, "It is a victory enough to get the black panther on the ballot," many in SNCC viewed the election results as further proof that whites would never willingly give up power to blacks and moved further toward the belief that black separatism was the only solution to the subjugation of the Negro race. SNCC expelled all whites in December 1966, and CORE, which had been organizing poor blacks for community action in northern cities since 1965, followed suit in July 1968.
West Coast Black Panthers
While SNCC, led by Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and CORE, under McKissick and Roy Innes, became increasingly militant, the American public viewed another group as the epitome of the radical black separatist movement: the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Founded in October 1967 in Oakland, California, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the group had as its original purpose patrolling black neighborhoods to monitor police treatment of blacks. Party members' angry rhetoric—from chants such as "We want pork chops, off [kill] the pigs [police]" to Eldridge Cleaver's ultimatum "total liberty for black people or total destruction for America"—established an alarming public image that tended to obscure community programs such as health care, food giveaways, and an education center. Dressed in striking uniforms of black berets, pants, shoes, and leather jackets, and powder-blue shirts, the Panthers were also heavily armed—creating a macho image that aided greatly in recruiting new members. (Carrying a loaded, unconcealed weapon was legal in California at that time.) From a group of fewer than one hundred in Oakland, the Black Panther Party (which dropped "for Self-Defense" from its name in 1967) grew to a loosely connected organization with chapters in about thirty-five cities in nineteen states and the District of Columbia—as well as England, France, Israel, and Halifax, Nova Scotia—by late 1970. The party nearly folded in late 1967, when Newton was arrested for murder after a shoot-out with the police in which one officer was killed. Cleaver, a prison activist and writer for the West Coast radical left magazine Ramparts, who had signed on as Panther minister of information earlier that year, emerged as a major party spokesman. The author of an influential prison autobiography, Soul on Ice (1968), Cleaver, who had spent nine years in prison for attempted murder, had a gift for attracting media attention and was largely responsible for the growth of the party over the next several years. (Newton was convicted of murder in 1968 but acquitted on a technicality in 1970.)
Black Liberation Ideology
Like most black power advocates, the Panthers were heavily influenced by the teachings of Malcolm X, the Black Muslim leader whose assassination in 1965 elevated him to a level of fame and prestige far greater than he had achieved in life. In the mid and late 1960s the posthumously published Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) became a sort of sacred text for young black activists, with its assertion that blacks should not want "to integrate into this corrupt society, but to separate from it, to a land of our own, where we can reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards, and try to be godly." To these teachings the Panthers, like many of their black and white radical contemporaries, added the ideas they found in The Wretched of the Earth (first English translation, 1965), by Frantz Fanon, a black Caribbean psychologist who had played an important role in the struggle for Algerian independence from France. Cleaver called Fanon's book the bible of the black liberation movement, while Seale claimed he had read it six times, and Carmichael called Fanon a patron saint. They derived from Fanon an identification of the black power movement in America with the liberation efforts of the oppressed Third World peoples of Africa and Asia—a view that contributed substantially to their opposition to the Vietnam War—and a belief that "violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect." Fanon gave the Panthers in particular—and the black liberation movement in general—the vocabulary to express their belief that black Americans' history and culture, and with it their sense of self-worth, had—like those of the Third World—been dominated, distorted, and nearly destroyed by whites, the "colonizers" who imposed their own culture and system of values on a conquered people. The solution to this state of subjugation began with reeducation of blacks to their true cultural identity—a process of empowerment best undertaken through throwing off and separating from the oppressor. Such ideas were at the heart of the Black Panther platform, especially their demand for "a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony [that is all blacks in the United States] 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 identity."
Cleaver Seeks White Allies
Onto the teachings of Malcolm and Fanon, the Black Panthers tacked their own version of Marxism-Leninism, what Cleaver called "a Yankee-Doodle-Dandy version of socialism." Believing that oppression of blacks was linked to oppression of the lower classes, the Black Panthers believed that they could be the revolutionary vanguard in overthrowing "all the enemies of the wretched of the earth." Although Panthers often looked on the white radicals in the antiwar movement as children playing at being revolutionaries, declining on those grounds to take part in planning for the antiwar demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Cleaver and other Panthers welcomed white fellow travelers, but as foot soldiers, not generals: it was the duty of whites to participate in the black liberation struggle, the Panthers said, but blacks, not whites, would control the direction of that movement. One example of their coalition building was Cleaver's agreement to run for president in 1968 on the ticket of the Peace and Freedom Party, a mostly white group of antiwar activists, who put up as Cleaver's running mate white radical Jerry Rubin, a founder of the Yippies (Youth International Party), which planned a major role in the Chicago demonstrations.
SNCC Merges with the Panthers
At the same time Cleaver was exploring links with white radicals, he was also looking to other black groups, most notably SNCC, which was far better known than the Panthers in 1967-1968. On 17 February 1968 (Huey Newton's birthday) at one of the Panthers' many "Free Huey" rallies, they and SNCC announced that the two groups would merge, and Carmichael was named Black Panther prime minister. The union was brief and controversial. Cleaver and Carmichael were soon arguing about the place of whites in the movement, with Cleaver criticizing Carmichael's "paranoid fear" of whites and his willingness to choose allies on the basis of color rather than ideology. In August — after further infighting—SNCC officially disassociated itself from the Black Panthers and at the same time expelled Carmichael, who resigned from the Panthers in July 1969 (and was eventually denounced by them as an agent of the CIA).
Hoover Targets the Panthers
Though there were other black liberation groups that were more antiwhite and proviolence than the Panthers, the Panthers were more visible than underground guerrilla organizations such as the Black Liberation Army and the Revolutionary Action Movement and therefore a primary target of the COINTELPRO group launched by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in August 1967 "to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings. ...." FBI infiltration in SNCC contributed to that organization's split from the Panthers, while other undercover agents in the Panthers and US, another West Coast black group led by Ron Karenga, instigated an August 1969 shootout between the two groups that left two Panthers dead. There was also direct action between the Panthers and law enforcement officials. In April 1968 Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton was killed, and four others, including Cleaver, were wounded during a police raid. As a result Cleaver's parole was revoked. The next December two Chicago Panther leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, were killed in a police raid of their apartment and elevated to martyrdom by fellow black nationalists. By 1970 twenty-eight Black Panthers had been killed by policemen, according to figures released by the party attorney. Cleaver had gone into exile in Algeria, taking other Panthers with him, and after Newton's release from prison that year the two disagreed on party policy. Each ended up forming his own version of the Black Panthers and expelling the other. By the mid 1970s COINTELPRO had largely succeeded in destroying or driving underground both black and white radical movements.
Defining Black Power
The black power movement as a whole was so diverse, so loosely coordinated, and in many cases so uncertain about its methods and goals that it is virtually undefinable. Although white Americans tended to interpret the "black power" slogan as a call to racial violence, blacks most often understood it as a call for racial pride and the achievement of political and economic power through peaceful, democratic means. For example, in a 1967 poll of blacks and whites in Detroit, 60 percent of the white respondents but only 9 percent of the blacks equated black power with violence and racism. Whites also tended to see black riots and looting—which erupted yearly in major American cities from 1964 through the end of the decade—as proof that huge numbers of young blacks were ready to rise up in violent revolution, but, as the Black Panthers and other groups that attempted to recruit new members in these ghettos learned quickly, the great majority of poor urban blacks wanted to be part of the middle class, not to destroy it. Because the angry rhetoric of the Panthers and SNCC made more exciting news than stories about the grassroots political activities of lower-class blacks to elect their own representatives to city and county councils, the media served to heighten whites' fears of black power groups. Not all these groups were separatist, and those that were held widely diverging, and sometimes uncertain, views on what and where the new black nation should be. While some groups called for their own black nation in Africa, others wanted to establish a new homeland in the United States. In 1968, for example, a group calling itself the Republic of New Africa (RNA) delivered a letter to the U.S. State Department in which they requested the opening of negotiations on their proposal that the United States turn over to them the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and $400 billion start-up money for the creation of an all-black sovereign nation. (The State Department did not respond, and the RNA attempted to establish a community in Mississippi while developing urban guerrilla forces; by the mid 1970s the RNA, like other groups targeted by COINTELPRO, was defunct.) Other black power groups were simply reacting against the growing tendency of whites to move out of the inner cities while maintaining ownership of buildings and businesses as well as participation in city politics. Faced with increasingly run-down housing, price-gouging storekeepers, underfunded schools, and local governments unsympathetic to their plights, these black power groups were creating black communities in which blacks controlled their own economic and political destinies and took pride in their own history and culture. Some of these groups wanted to establish entirely new, self-sufficient black communities, such as Soul City, which Floyd McKissick established in Warren County, North Carolina. Others wanted to set up black enclaves within cities. In Newark, for example, black poet Amiri Baraka called on blacks to "take over our own space in these same shitty towns transforming them with our vision and style to be extensions of swiftshake and stomp sound." Though their rhetoric was often angry, these groups, with their emphases on black pride and black culture and their willingness to work within the established economic and political systems, were ultimately more successful than the radical groups that dominated the media in the late 1960s.
Gale Document Number: EJ2104240362