Hall, Simon. "The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966-1969." The Historian. Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. 2007. HighBeam Research. 19 Jun. 2013 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Hall, Simon. "The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966-1969." The Historian. 2007. HighBeam Research. (June 19, 2013). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-162576102.html
Hall, Simon. "The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966-1969." The Historian. Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. 2007. Retrieved June 19, 2013 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-162576102.html
"[Black Power] is a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan."
--Roy Wilkins, NAACP executive director, 5 July 1966
"all of the goals which Mr. Carmichael ... asserts to be comprehended in the phrase 'Black Power' turn out ... to be merely restatements of goals pursued by the NAACP since its founding."
--John Morsell, NAACP assistant executive director, 3 November 1966
ON THE EVENING OF 17 June 1966, Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), addressed a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. The SNCC leader had been released from jail minutes before and acknowledged the "roar" of the angry crowd with a "raised arm and a clenched fist" as he moved forward to speak. "This is the 27th time I have been arrested--and I ain't going to jail no more, I ain't going to jail no more," he told the several hundred mostly local African Americans. "The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain't got nothin'. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" Carmichael proclaimed that "every courthouse in Mississippi ought to be burned tomorrow to get rid of the dirt ... from now on when they ask what you want, you know what to tell 'em. What do you want?" The crowd thundered back, "Black Power!" (1)
The sudden emergence of the "Black Power" slogan created a political firestorm within both the civil rights movement and the broader body politic. For its critics, Black Power symbolized a dangerous new force and conjured up images of "Black Jacobinism" and the "Mau Mau ... coming to the suburbs at night." (2) Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey castigated it as reverse racism, declaring that "there is no room in America for racism of any color." (3) Within the civil rights coalition Black Power precipitated a decisive split, as both the SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) embraced versions of Black Power, dropped their commitment to nonviolence, and questioned the value of interracialism. This placed them in opposition to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, which criticized the slogan in no uncertain terms, leaving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggling to hold the movement together. (4)
Reacting against a historiography that has been, in the words of Charles Payne, "generally elitist," recent scholars of the civil rights movement have moved beyond the early emphasis on national leadership and organizational history to focus on the black struggle at the local level. (5) An associated development has been the emergence of a challenge to the traditional view that sees Black Power as marking a distinct break from the civil rights movement. Leading this wave of revisionism is Timothy B. Tyson, who has written extensively on Robert E Williams, the NAACP activist and black freedom fighter from Monroe, North Carolina. Tyson has used Williams's advocacy of armed self-defense, "independent Black political action," and "Black cultural pride" to argue that "the 'civil rights movement' and 'the Black Power movement,' often portrayed in very different terms, grew out of the same soil, confronted the same predicaments, and reflected the same quest for African American freedom." According to Tyson, the conventional dichotomy between "civil rights" and "Black Power" often serves to obscure rather than enlighten the scholarly discussion. (6) Following Tyson's lead, a small army of scholars have probed the role of armed self-defense within the southern struggle, challenged traditional assumptions, and emphasized continuities and similarities, rather than decisive breaks and dramatic differences, between the civil rights and Black Power movements. (7) Peniel E. Joseph, for example, has criticized the tendency of scholars to caricature Black Power as the civil rights movement's "evil twin." According to Joseph, "Civil Rights historiography too often castigates the Black Power era as a betrayal of the supposedly halcyon days of the non-violent Southern movement. However, Black militancy existed side by side with civil rights protesters and sometimes within single organizations." (8)
This article explores the NAACP's reaction to the emergence of Black Power in the mid-1960s. Specifically, it offers a detailed analysis of the association's response, at the national level, to Stokely Carmichael's popularization of the "Black Power" slogan in the summer of 1966 and his subsequent attempts to provide a cogent definition of the term. Furthermore, it also examines the reaction to Black Power among grassroots NAACP activists. Indeed, with its vast network of local branches and its institutionalized national leadership, the NAACP provides an excellent opportunity to integrate the national and local perspectives.
Although commonly viewed as embodying its antithesis, an exploration of the NAACP national leadership's response to Carmichael's advocacy of Black Power reveals that, despite the association's very public and forceful criticisms, it actually shared more in common with the SNCC leader than is often acknowledged. (9) Indeed, this article will demonstrate that much of the NAACP's hostility toward "Black Power" during 1966-1967 stemmed from concerns over image rather than disputes over ideology. This supports Clayborne Carson's claim that the battle over Black Power in the second half of 1966 was "more a clash of emotions than ideas" while challenging Manfred Berg's assertion that the association's attitude is best understood as part of a fundamental conflict over core beliefs. (10) The reaction of grassroots NAACP members to the emergent Black radicalism, meanwhile, demonstrates more clearly the complex character of America's most important civil rights organization. Ultimately, the detailed analysis outlined below offers further support to those scholars who have argued that "the widely held distinction between the civil rights movement and Black Power [is] largely an intellectual architecture of political convenience." (11)
DEFINING BLACK POWER
Historians have struggled to define Black Power satisfactorily, which partly reflects the contemporary confusion and disagreement that surrounded the slogan even among its proponents. As William Van Deburg has pointed out, black militants found it easier to "explain alleged misconceptions" than "formulate succinct definitions." (12) Indeed, a central characteristic of Black Power was its sense of "creativity and experimentation," with a good deal of selective borrowing and adaptation taking place. (13) In July 1969, John H. Bracey, Jr., August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick pointed out that competing versions of Black Power were "often not sharply delineated, nor ... mutually exclusive," and that ideological and programmatical elements of Black Power and integrationism often existed side by side within both individuals and organizations. (14) Broadly speaking, Black Power advocates can be divided into pluralists and nationalists. For pluralists, the black struggle was a version of interest-group politics. So long as equal opportunities and respect were offered to all groups, amicable coexistence was possible, with a cohesive black community able to enjoy a "representative share of both local and national decision-making power." Nationalists, on the other hand, thought that one group would always come to "dominate and oppress" the others and that, to avoid "assimilation by fiat," some form of separatism (whether in urban enclaves, a separate nation-state, or the "realm of the psyche") was necessary. (15)
During the mid-late 1960s, a plethora of Black Power organizations came to the fore, expounding such diverse goals as the promotion of black capitalism, international socialism, and religious and territorial nationalism. (16) The Black Panther Party, one of the most famous Black Power groups, was founded in Oakland, California, in October 1966. It came to advocate a revolutionary nationalism which viewed the black struggle within the United States as part of a world movement to replace capitalism with socialism. The Panthers sought to ally with both third-world peoples and white radicals in order to free those who were oppressed by the "system." (17) Other groups advocated versions of territorial nationalism, calling for some sort of separate black homeland or autonomous enclave(s) within the continental United States. The Republic for New Africa, founded in March 1968, demanded the cession of five southern states and planned for the possibility of fighting a "people's war" against the United States in order to achieve this. (18) For others, cultural nationalism provided the best means of insuring black liberation--"by asserting their cultural distinctiveness via clothing, language, and hairstyle and by recounting their unique historical experiences through the literary and performing arts, cultural nationalists sought to encourage self-actualization and psychological empowerment." (19) This approach was epitomized by Maulana Ron Karenga's US (20) organization, based on the West Coast, which promoted the teaching of Swahili, sponsored community-based arts events, and advocated the celebration of black holidays such as Kuzaliwa (19 May--Malcolm X's birthday). (21) The lack of solidarity within the Black Power movement is symbolized perfectly by the fraught relationship between revolutionary and cultural nationalists. While the former dismissed US activists as "niggers with the bongos in their ears," black advocates of international socialist revolution found themselves accused of wearing "some dead 1930s white ideology as a freedom suit." Indeed, intramovement tensions were so bad that by early 1969 the Panthers and US had engaged in a number of deadly shoot-outs with each other. (22)
Black Power clearly drew on earlier African American political traditions, including the self-help of Booker T. Washington, the racial pride of Garveyism, and the Pan-Africanism and nationalism of W. E. B. Du Bois. Black Power was not just a reaction among northern, urban blacks to ghetto poverty and police brutality; it was also an outgrowth of the southern civil rights movement itself, which had become partly radicalized as the 1960s wore on. (23) Many grassroots activists who worked in the South, for example, became increasingly disillusioned with a liberal federal government that refused to protect them from racist violence and hostile to white activists' participation in the struggle. SNCC's turn to Black Power in the summer of 1966, then, was partly a product of this long-term trend. (24) Black Power also drew heavily on the example and rhetoric of Malcolm X, emphasized racial pride--often in a global context--advocated the support and development of black-controlled institutions, and endorsed armed self-defense. (25) Ultimately Black Power advocates of the 1960s, pluralists and nationalists alike, agreed that African Americans had to "mobilize, close ranks, and move toward a position of community and of group strength," involving all aspects of Black life--"political, economic, psychological, and cultural." (26)
In the months following Carmichael's headline-grabbing performance in Greenwood, Mississippi, the SNCC leader sought to cover the rhetorical bones of Black Power with some intellectual flesh. In a series of published writings and public pronouncements, Carmichael fashioned a definition of Black Power that was based on "a distinctly American brand of pluralism." (27) The version of Black Power expounded by Carmichael during 1966-1967 was grounded in American "interest group liberalism" and, according to Donald J. McCormack, "stood essentially for the employment of conventional group-theory tactics to attain greater political and economic benefits" for African Americans. (28) In an essay published in the New York Review of Books in September 1966, Carmichael explained that, in political terms, Black Power meant "the coming-together of Black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs," and he also called on African Americans to develop economic power and heightened racial consciousness. (29)
In November 1967, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America was published by Random House. Written by University of Chicago political scientist Charles Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael, it "provided the richest, and in many ways the most important theoretical and political definition of a movement that would remain ill-defined during, and long after, its heyday." (30) According to this treatise, Black Power was "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. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of this society." It was a sense of solidarity and group strength that would allow black freedom to exist--according to Carmichael and Hamilton the "concept of Black Power" rested 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." (31) African Americans, then, had to do what Irish and Italian immigrants had done before: translate group solidarity into political power. (32)
Many of the separatist, nationalist Black Power groups of the later 1960s would disagree profoundly with this pluralistic approach; indeed, Carmichael himself would abandon it by the decade's end to advocate armed struggle and Pan-Africanism. (33) Nevertheless, during 1966-1967, the NAACP's national leadership responded to Carmichael's promotion and definition of this pluralistic version of Black Power in ways that help illuminate the relationship between the "civil rights" and "Black Power" movements.
THE NAACP's RESPONSE
Founded in 1909, America's largest and oldest civil rights organization had grown increasingly conservative in the years following the Second World War. During the 1940s and 1950s the NAACP had abandoned the Popular Front tactics of the 1930s, attempted to dissociate itself from more radical civil rights groups such as CORE, and accepted the domestic and foreign tenets of anticommunism. (34) Although the association supported many of the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, frequently supplying bail money and legal help, it remained lukewarm to the tactics of protest. Robert Cook, for example, has argued that the association "failed to embrace wholeheartedly the concept of nonviolent direct action ..." (35) The organization, at least at the national level, preferred to concentrate its …
Diverse Issues in Higher Education; February 8, 2007
Reference & Research Book News; August 1, 2006
Jet; November 30, 1998
Journal of Social History; March 22, 2004
Journal of Social History; March 22, 2004
Browse back issues from our extensive library of more than 6,500 trusted publications.
Help us improve our websites
Become a member of our Customer Advisory Panel. Your opinion matters!Join the panel
HighBeam Research is operated by Cengage Learning. © Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
The HighBeam advertising network includes: womensforum.com GlamFamily