Relearning Black Power

Words: Owen Frost

When British students hear the phrase ‘American civil rights’, we think of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement he led. The source material we interact with at school portrays 1954-1965 as the campaign’s golden years, with pages of information dedicated to 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

In comparison, the subsequent Black Power movement of 1967-1975 receives scant attention. It’s dismissed by many as a violent, radicalised aftermath headed by the violent, radical Black Panther Party. Often held up as representative, despite dying before the movement’s heyday, is Malcolm X, who, in the history textbooks, is sometimes consigned to the role of Martin Luther King’s rival. But less is written about Black Power’s international appeal and its importance in shaping the political climate we live in today. 

Many of the most well-known Black activists, with significant influence in international as well as American politics, started out with the Black Power movement. These included Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who all broke down racial barriers in America. Popular cultural movements and figures that we love in the UK were inspired and moved by Black Power, from music to film to sport.

The iconic Black Power Fist – a historic symbol of solidarity – is said to have first been clenched in specific reference to Black identity by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The two men had come first and third respectively in the 200-metre race: they stepped onto the podium shoeless and kept black-gloved fists raised as the Star Spangled Banner played. Black Power activists adopted the symbol at large as the movement swelled. 

The claim that the Black Panther Party was violent is simplistic, but not unfounded. Force formed part of the movement’s methodology where necessary to protect African-American people against their oppressors. Their direct action included utilising open-carry gun laws in cars, and ‘policing the police’ by citing their rights when they were stopped – so compared to the largely peaceful civil rights marches, images of Black Panthers toting guns on the streets of Los Angeles were bound to look volatile.

But it’s the movement’s moments of nonviolent action that are most often omitted from the textbooks. Beginning in January 1969 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, the Black Panthers Free Breakfast Programme had fed over 20,000 school children and covered nineteen cities across the US by the end of the year. This programme still exists today. The Black Panthers also opened free health clinics for African Americans, campaigned for more government attention to the sickle cell anaemia crisis – a disease which predominantly affects Black people – and offered free clothes and legal defence to political prisoners.  Huey Newton (Minister of Defence for Black Panthers) and Bobby Seale (Chairman) used education to champion a proud Black identity in their communities, teaching young children that ‘Black is beautiful.’ 

Previously, Kwame Ture (AKA Stokely Carmichael) had joined the Black Panthers as Honorary Prime Minister and worked with his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the rural South on campaigns on political literacy and getting Black communities to register to vote. The Black Power movement lobbied in the 60s for the inclusion of more Black Studies courses, too. 

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover saw these actions as one of the most serious threats to US internal security, and kept tabs on key leaders in the hope of breaking up the Party.  The FBI oversaw this through its Counterintelligence Programme (COINTELPRO), which had been previously used against American communists, feminists and anti-Vietnam war organisers. 233 of 295 COINTELPRO documented actions were taken against Black Power activists – actions which included legal harassment, intimidation, wiretapping, infiltration, smear campaigns and blackmail. Even Martin Luther King’s credibility had been sought for destruction: the FBI sent him multiple anonymous letters blackmailing him, with the intention of convincing him to commit suicide. 

The FBI also worked with police forces to intimidate key Black Power officials. The 1969 death of Fred Hampton, the Panthers’ Deputy Chairman, has been held up as a prime example of these tactics. Hampton, who was working on the groundbreaking pact between gangs at the time known as the Rainbow Alliance, was killed in a shootout between Panthers and the Chicago Police in his apartment. Portrayed at the time as a violent Panther retaliation, forensic evidence including bullet casings later showed that the Panthers had fired one shot to the CPD’s one hundred

In Tom Davies’ book Mainstreaming Black Power, he argues that the Black Power movement should not be misconstrued as simply a rival to the civil rights movement. Davies points out that the Black Power movement adapted to meet the needs of the disenfranchised urban and rural poor – something that Dr King’s civil rights movement belatedly endorsed just before his 1968 assassination.

Moreover, the Black Panther Party was not the only body within the Black Power movement. Civil rights groups SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) altered their views to merge with the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. The claim that the Black Power movement was always diametrically opposed to the civil rights movement is redundant. Many of the groups later intermingled to form more ideologically-varied organisations. Professor Nico Slate argues against narratives which frame the Black Power movement through a post-1960s perspective based on fragmentation.

The international impact of the Black Power movement should also not be understated. Black Power resonated transnationally, and its wide scope has been examined in recent literature – most notably Slate’s book Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of The Black Power Movement. The Black Power movement abroad escalated to the 1970 Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago; in Guyana, Black Power activists used the movement to help overcome divisions between Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean communities. In Jamaica, the 1968 Rodney Riots broke out as a result of the Prime Minister banning works by influential Black Power exponents, notably Guyanese academic Walter Rodney. 

The Polynesian Panther Party was formed on 16th June 1971, and the Party established links between the oppressions experienced by Māori people and Pacific Islanders. Their protest profile increased under the administration of New Zealand Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, who ran an immigration scare campaign in 1975 which advocated police raids that disproportionately targeted people of Pacific Islander heritage. In 1972, the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Mumbai and approximately two hundred members marched through the city’s streets on August 15th, 1973, in celebration of what they called Kala Swatantrya Din (‘Black Independence Day’). The Dalit Panthers claimed a close relationship with the American Black Power movement.  This is not an exhaustive list of Black Panther parties – subsequent organisations were founded in Israel, Britain, the Caribbean, West Africa and other locations in South Asia, too. 

The commonly-held perspective that Black Power was solely a US-based, violent, misogynistic counterpart to the ‘good’ non-violent civil rights movement is fundamentally incomplete. It’s necessary to see the Black Power movement as an important branch of modern civil rights activism, and a cornerstone in the development of an international Black politics reflected in the global protests taking place today.

learn more

  • BOOK: Mainstreaming Black Power – Tom Davies
  • DOCUMENTARY: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015)
  • CAMPAIGN GROUP: The Black Curriculum

Owen Frost is an undergraduate studying History at the University of Leeds. He is editor of the Arts and Culture section of the Gryphon. Follow him on Twitter and Medium.