Black Power

political and social movement and ideology

Black Power is a political slogan and a name for various associated ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for people of African descent. "Black Power" expresses a range of political goals, from defense against racial oppression, to the establishment of social institutions and a self-sufficient economy, including black-owned bookstores, cooperatives, farms, and media.

Out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout 'White Power!' — when nobody will shout 'Black Power!' — but everybody will talk about God's power and human power. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.


The weakness of 'Black Power' is its failure to see that the black man needs the white man and the white man needs the black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together. ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
The syndrome of the powerlessness of black Americans could only be ended by their own efforts; by harnessing the tremendous economic potential of the ghetto and by developing political movements that would fulfill the needs of its people. ~ Floyd McKissick
  • The days of Black Power are numbered. Its course, indeed is onward. But with the swiftness of an arrow, it rushes to the tomb. While crushing its millions, it is also crushing itself. The sword of Retribution, suspended by a single hair, hangs over it. That sword must fall. Liberty must triumph.
    • Frederick Douglass, as quoted in "Sustaining Black Studies", by Winston A. Van Horne, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3, (January 2007)
  • For the colonized, life can only materialize from the rotting cadaver of the colonist.
  • No, the call for Black Power in the 1960’s was not a call for racial isolation. Yes, it was an honest recognition that for any group—racial, ethnic, economic—to become a respected, effective player in the American political system, cohesive organization was crucial.
  • The lawlessness, rioting, men like Stokely Carmichael acting as if they speak for the Negro people. They aren't, and set civil rights back 100 years!
    • Daniel James Jr., as quoted in The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in The Military (1998), by Gerald Astor, De Capo Press, pp. 440–443
  • Out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout 'White Power!' — when nobody will shout 'Black Power!' — but everybody will talk about God's power and human power... The weakness of 'Black Power' is its failure to see that the black man needs the white man and the white man needs the black man. However much we may try to romanticize the slogan, there is no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white paths, and there is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disaster, that does not share that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity. We are bound together in a single garment of destiny.
  • The real tragedy is that there are some ignorant brothers out here. That's why I'm not on this all-white or all-black shit. I'm on this all-real or all fake shit with people, whatever color you are... [E]very 'brother' ain't a brother. They will do you. So just because it's black, don't mean it's cool; and just because it's white don't mean it's evil.
  • The adoption of the concept of Black Power is one of the most legitimate and healthy developments in American politics and race relations in our time. [...] It is a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society. The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise: Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this we mean that group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.
  • The point is obvious: black people must lead and run their own organizations. Only black people can convey the revolutionary idea—and it is a revolutionary idea—that black people are able to do things themselves. Only they can help create in the community an aroused and continuing black consciousness that will provide the basis for political strength. In the past, white allies have often furthered white supremacy without the whites involved realizing it, or even wanting to do so. Black people must come together and do things for themselves. They must achieve self-identity and self-determination in order to have their daily needs met.
  • It does not mean merely putting black faces into office. Black visibility is not Black Power. Most of the black politicians around the country today are not examples of Black Power. The power must be that of a community, and emanate from there. The black politicians must start from there. The black politicians must stop being representatives of “downtown” machines, whatever the cost might be in terms of lost patronage and holiday handouts.
  • Black Power recognizes—it must recognize—the ethnic basis of American politics as well as the power-oriented nature of American politics. Black Power therefore calls for black people to consolidate behind their own, so that they can bargain from a position of strength. But while we endorse the procedure of group solidarity and identity for the purpose of attaining certain goals in the body politic, this does not mean that black people should strive for the same kind of rewards (i.e., end results) obtained by the white society. The ultimate values and goals are not domination or exploitation of other groups, but rather an effective share in the total power of the society.
  • Nevertheless, some observers have labeled those who advocate Black Power as racists; they have said that the call for self-identification and self-determination is “racism in reverse” or “black supremacy.” This is a deliberate and absurd lie. There is no analogy—by any stretch of definition or imagination—between the advocates of Black Power and white racists. Racism is not merely exclusion on the basis of race but exclusion for the purpose of subjugating or maintaining subjugation. The goal of the racists is to keep black people on the bottom, arbitrarily and dictatorially, as they have done in this country for over three hundred years. The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity—Black Power—is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people. The black people of this country have not lynched whites, bombed their churches, murdered their children and manipulated laws and institutions to maintain oppression. White racists have. Congressional laws, one after the other, have not been necessary to stop black people from oppressing others and denying others the full enjoyment of their rights. White racists have made such laws necessary. The goal of Black Power is positive and functional to a free and viable society. No white racist can make this claim.
  • The advocates of Black Power are not opposed to coalitions per se. But we are not interested in coalitions based on myths. To the extent to which black people can form viable coalitions will the end results of those alliances be lasting and meaningful. There will be clearer understanding of what is sought; there will be greater impetus on all sides to deliver, because there will be mutual respect of the power of the other to reward or punish; there will be much less likelihood of leaders selling out their followers. Black Power therefore has no connotation of “go it alone.” Black Power simply says: enter coalitions only after you are able to “stand on your own.” Black Power seeks to correct the approach to dependency, to remove that dependency, and to establish a viable psychological, political and social base upon which the black community can function to meet its needs.
  • It became crystal clear that in order to combat power, one needed power. Black people would have to organize and obtain their own power base before they could begin to think of coalition with others. It is absolutely imperative that black people strive to form an independent base of political power first. When they can control their own communities—however large or small—then other groups will make overtures to them based on a wise calculation of self-interest. The blacks will have the mobilized ability to grant or withhold from coalition. Black people must set about to build those new forms of politics.
  • I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood.
  • The radicalization of civil-rights politics began in the mid-1960s. On July 18, 1964, Police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan shot and killed James Powell, a student at Robert F. Wagner Junior High. Powell's killing touched off a riot in Harlem that ultimately led to 465 arrests and 118 injuries. In the wake of the Harlem riots, in August 1965, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles exploded in violence. The Watts riots resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and over 400 arrests.
    The Watts riots also galvanized change in some civil-rights organizations. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been a bi-racial, student organization best known for its Freedom Summer efforts to register black voters in the Deep South. In May 1966, SNCC elected as Chairman Stokey Carmichael, a Trinidad-born, naturalized citizen thought of as a leading intellectual in the organization. Within a month, Carmichael had begun to popularize calls for "black power" rather than civil rights. As debate about the meaning and legitimacy of the subject grew, Martin Luther King, Jr. deemed the term "unfortunate." However, Floyd McKissick, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) defended the term. He explained its meaning as follows: "The syndrome of the powerlessness of black Americans could only be ended by their own efforts; by harnessing the tremendous economic potential of the ghetto and by developing political movements that would fulfill the needs of its people." CORE had been in operation since after World War II, attracting the most attention for its Freedom Rides, efforts to desegregate interstate bus travel. By 1966, like SNCC CORE had expelled white members, and McKissick called opponents of black power part of a "malevolent Southern tradition that seeks, even now, to divide black America into 'good niggers' and 'bad niggers."
  • Later in 1966, riots began in Chicago and San Francisco. By the end of that year, there were growing signs of a white backlash. In October 1966, the New York Times reported mounting "disaffection among white liberals for the Negro cause of equality." Polls taken in the fall of the same year showed white opposition to all civil rights demonstrations and black power. As John Herbers of the New York Times reported in discussing one such poll, whites agreed "that Negroes were moving too fast on civil rights."'
    At the same time, members of the new black power movement often framed the riots as legitimate and even inevitable forms of resistance. The Black Panther Party (BPP), founded in 1966, emerged as a response to police violence in Oakland, California. In April 1967, McKissick argued that the riots had occurred because African Americans "no longer believe in the white man's promise." After Carmichael left SNCC for the BPP, his successor, H. "Rap" Brown, a Louisiana native and a member of the civil-rights movement since 1960, offered even more menacing rhetoric, suggesting that the unrest in the city would "look like a picnic" compared to the violence that would ensue if blacks organized to take on their oppressors. As he put it later in 1967: "[B]urn this town down if this town don't turn around."
  • The black-power movement had a far-reaching program, including demands for prison reform, economic self-sufficiency, and rights to employment and housing. Between 1969 and 1973, in criticizing white racism, a number of movement members also began to attack legal abortion. Attacks on birth control and abortion tended to feature in much larger narratives about efforts on the part of the United States to "herd [black people] into small, overcrowded areas called ghettos" or to "cut back on welfare."' In 1969, Brown made the argument that birth control was "genocide." Dick Gregory, a leading black comedian, expressed concern about the issue in a much-debated article in Ebony Magazine. The Black Panther, the official publication of the BPP, criticized the legalization of abortion in New York in 1970, and equally scathing essays continued to appear throughout the early 1970s. Jesse Jackson of Operation Breadbasket also took a strong stand against legal abortion.

Ta-Nehisi Coates Makes the Case for Reparations at Historic Congressional Hearing, Democracy Now' (20 June 2019)


(full program & transcript online)

  • Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible... This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties... But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.
  • As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement, quote, “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics” of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America—$3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.
    The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
    It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement. But the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders, and the god of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs—coup d’états and convict leasing. vagrancy laws and debt peonage, redlining and racist GI bills, poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism.
  • We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
    What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something.” It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.
    The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Reparations Are Not Just About Slavery But Also Centuries of Theft & Racial Terror, Democracy Now (20 June 2019)


(full program & transcript online)

  • You know, the two great crimes in American history is obviously...the near destruction...of this country’s Native American population, the theft of their land, and on to work that land was brought in native Africans into this country, beginning in 1619. Those twin processes profoundly altered the shape of the world and made this country possible. Obviously, first of all, you know, the land on which America and Americans currently reside was the land of Native Americans, but the people brought in to break that land just transformed it.
  • The profits derived from slavery are more extreme than I think are commonly acknowledged. As I said yesterday, in 1860, the combined worth of the 4 million enslaved black people in this country was some $3 billion, nearly $75 billion in today’s share of dollars. Cotton, in 1860, was this country’s largest export—not just its largest export, it was the majority of exports out of this country. So, from a financial perspective, just the economics of it, it’s absolutely impossible to imagine America without enslavement.
  • The onset of the Civil War, the greatest preponderance, the greatest population per capita of millionaires and multimillionaires in this country was in the Mississippi River Valley. It wasn’t in Boston, wasn’t in Chicago, wasn’t in New York. The richest people in this country were slaveholders. Most of our earliest presidents were slaveholders. And the fact that they were presidents is not incidental to the fact that they—to their slaveholding. That was how they built their wealth. That was how Thomas Jefferson built his wealth. That was how George Washington built his wealth. Individual slaves were the equivalent of, say, owning a home today. They were people, but turned into objects of extreme wealth. So, just from the economic perspective, there’s that.
  • The average African-American family in this country making $100,000, which is, you know, decent money, actually lives in the same kind of neighborhood that the average white family making $35,000 a year lives in. That is totally tied to the legacy of enslavement and Jim Crow and the input and the idea in the mind that white people and black people are somehow deserving of different things.
  • If I injure you, the injury persists even after I actually commit the act. If I stab you, you may suffer complications long after that initial actual stabbing. If I shoot you, you may suffer complications long after that initial shooting. That’s the case with African Americans. There are people well within the living memory of this country that are still suffering from the after-effects of that.
  • This whole thing about who should get a check, and should we cut checks, you know, I understand those questions. That’s great. Those people should support H.R. 40, though, because that’s what H.R. 40 does. It tries to get that figured out, and get that math figured out, and figure out the best way to do it. But if we don’t actually have a study, we can’t actually answer those questions. You can’t ask a doctor to make a diagnosis before there’s an actual examination.
  • And in terms of poverty and race in this country, again, you know, one of the things that I really, really wanted to stress is, the level of poverty specifically that you see in the African-American community is not accidental. It’s not accidental. This is part of the process. The process of enslavement involves stealing something from someone. It involves taking something from someone.
  • Jim Crow was theft. First and foremost, it was theft. If I tax you or if tell you you have to be loyal to this country and pledge fealty to its laws, but then I don’t give you the same degree of protection, I don’t give you the same access to resources that I give to another group of people, I have effectively stolen something from you. I have stolen your tax money. I have stolen your fealty.
  • So, when the state of Mississippi, for instance, taxes black people and then builds one facility for education and another for—one facility for education for whites and then an inferior facility for blacks, that’s theft. That’s theft. If I build a public pool system and then tell you you can’t use that public pool system, that’s theft.
  • And so, that is the long history of this country, that doesn’t end, again, conservatively, until 1968. And so, there are people who are very, very much alive who have experienced that, who are suffering the after-effects and effects of that. And that’s what, you know, as far as I’m concerned, the whole movement around reparations is about.
  • Mitch McConnell... does not want to be responsible for enslavement that happened 150 years ago, but, yet and still, wants the right to operate his business or operate his career in a building that was built by enslaved people.
  • I think the testimony was that one should not receive payment that would properly be due to the enslaved. But this country is, to this very day, receiving payment that was due to its enslavers. That’s the way inheritance works in this country, however one might feel about that. If I assemble a mass of money, I have the right to pass that on to my kid. My kid has the right to do whatever and then pass it on to their kid. And so, there’s something fundamentally injust if I have secured that money by taking it from one group, and then I pass that money on to my kid.

See also