The Black Power Movement: Facts, Timeline & Leaders

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will place the Black Power Movement in context and detail some of its basic features. The most important organizations will be detailed and the contemporary relevance of the Black Power Movement will be discussed.

Black Power in Context

Marcus Garvey, 1924

Throughout the 20th century, African-Americans fought to break down the barriers of racism, violence, and poverty that had plagued them since their arrival in North America. In the early 20th century, Marcus Garvey called for African-Americans to return en masse to Africa and denounced the racist establishment of the United States. In the 1920s, participants in the Harlem Renaissance such as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Zora Neil Hurston offered a distinctive cultural voice for urban African-Americans. The tumultuous events of the 1950s and 1960s that led to desegregation, the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act propelled the struggle of African-Americans for human rights into national consciousness, changing American culture forever.

Although the victories of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s non-violent strategies were significant, many African-Americans looked around themselves in the mid-1960s and saw the same poverty, racism, and police brutality that existed in the 1930s. The Black Power Movement grew out of the Civil Rights Movement and represented lingering frustration with the problems the Civil Rights Movement had not managed to solve.

Self-Defense, Black-Nationalism and Revolution

There were numerous different branches of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s, many of which vehemently disagreed with one another. The need for self-defense and potentially violent resistance against state violence was one of the more unifying characteristics of the Black Power Movement. Whereas earlier incarnations of the Civil Rights Movement placed strong emphasis on non-violence and passive resistance, many people in the Black Power Movement felt that the racist power structure would never acknowledge the rights of African-Americans unless the powers that be were forced to do so through armed resistance. Organizations such as the Black Panther Party encouraged African-Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against white violence if necessary.

The notion of Black Nationalism was also an important feature of many Black Power groups. Whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. had stressed the need for the integration of whites and blacks in American society, many Black Power groups felt that integration was impossible. Black Power groups argued that violence, racism, and cultural dilution were the inevitable result of integration and that the only solution was a separation of the races. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam argued for African-American-controlled communities with African-American run-businesses in which African-Americans would have power over their own destiny.

Many Black Power groups, and radical groups of the era more generally, believed that a second American Revolution was imminent. Many Black Power organizations, including the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, took their cues from Marxist rhetoric about class conflict, while others adopted a more religious attitude articulated by the Nation of Islam. The Black Power Movement asserted that reforming the system was not possible and that a complete political, social, and racial reformation of American life would be necessary in order for justice to occur.

Conflict, Violence, and the Decline of the Black Power Movement

In the late 1960s, race riots took place in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other cities across America. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. The protest movement against the Vietnam War increased tensions between the conservative white establishment and the growing counterculture that opposed them. In this context of social upheaval, the revolution that Black Power activists foresaw did not seem so unlikely.

On December 4th 1969, Chicago police raided the residence occupied by several important members of the Black Power group the Black Panthers. As he slept in his bed, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot multiple times by police. Another Black Panther member, Mark Clark, was also killed in the attack. The killing of Fred Hampton is considered by many to be an assassination, but no charges were ever brought against the officers involved.

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