African Americans: MLK & Black Power.

December 21, 2022 by Staff  
Filed under News



( There is no sensible argument that can be made to counter W.E.B. Du Bois’ statement that “the problem of the 20th Century will be the color line.” If any criticism can be hurled at this Duboisian prophecy it is that it ends too soon and should have been extended far into the new millennium.

For many of our countrymen, it is Race that remains their rallying point. Even when aware of how variables such as class, gender, and sexual identity impact their lives, it is Race whose reign resembles that of King Cotton during this nation’s period of chattel slavery. Considering the centrality of Race in American lives, a reasonable argument could be made that there is no more frightening combination of words in the English language than “Black Power”. Above all other word combinations, Black Power and the philosophies flowing from it have proven to be reliable rallying points for those who support the concept as well as those that oppose even the mention of such matters. I am sure that you can imagine the polarization that occurred during the highly contentious identity politic driven 1960s when SNCC worker Willie (Mukasa) Ricks changed the ideological trajectory of the fight for racial equality in Greenwood, Mississippi when he taught sharecroppers “Black Power” slogans instead of the standard call for “Freedom Now”.

This moment was so impactful on the movement that not even movement patriarch Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr., was able to ignore its arrival.

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The debut of “Black Power” slogans stoked increasingly paranoid Whites’ fears of roving revenge-minded attacks by young Blacks. This moment tells us far more about the psyche of Whites in this nation than it says about angry Blacks who have rarely responded to centuries of exploitation, denigration, and marginalization at the hands of an oppressor with organized counter-attacks. Most agree that when White America’s fears were heightened, it was MLK’s advocacy of non-violent civil disobedience that provided significant psychological comfort to White’s who were bracing for the arrival of vengeful blood-thirsty Black Powerites desirous of revenge for past transgressions.

It would not be a stretch to argue that in the paranoid mind of many Whites, MLK was needed to control “irrational blacks” who refused to accept their second-class citizenship status. King’s utility grew in the mind of White America every time a media outlet juxtaposed King against Malcolm X or some other expression of Black Power politics. Many Whites, and a few Blacks, naively considered MLK as a necessary evil capable of quelling Black Powerites.

Considering this nation’s penchant for displaying episodes of dementia regarding matters of Black liberation, I will take a moment to define what Black Powerites were seeking to convey during their calls for “Black Power.” The most accepted definition of “Black Power” during the volatile 1960s is provided by Charles V. Hamilton and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). According to Hamilton and Carmichael,

Black power is concerned with organizing the rage of black people.…Black power (1) deals with the obviously growing alienation of black people and their distrust of the institutions of this society; (2) works to create new values and to build a new sense of community and of belonging; and (3) works to establish legitimate new institutions that make participants, not recipients, out of a people traditionally excluded from the fundamentally racist processes of this country.[i]

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 group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society. Traditionally, each new ethnic group in this society has found the route to social and political viability through the organization of its own institutions with which to represent its needs within the larger society . . . the American melting pot has not melted. Italians vote for Rubino over O’Brien; Irish for Murphy over Goldberg, etc.[ii]

Over a half-century after its creation, this definition remains relevant as it still reflects the political realities facing a politically powerless and economically marginalized Black America.

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The arrival of “Black Power” politics into the volatile 60s political economy was so significant that MLK realized that ignoring the matter was an incorrect action. Many would-be shocked to learn that the integrationist-minded “Prince of Peace” offered limited support for “Black Power” politics. According to Dr. King,

[t]here is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that inAmerica power is unequally distributed. This has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience….  [I]t is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.[iii]

{Black Power activists} must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimated power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely through a slogan…The words ‘black’ and ‘power’ together give the impression that we are talking about black domination rather than black equality.[iv]

Black Power is a call for the pooling of black financial resources to achieve economic security.… Through the pooling of such resources and the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment, the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the Negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power.[v]

Attempts to ignore MLK’s ideological maturation after the “March on Washington” doomed them to a limited understanding of both the Civil Rights patriarch and the larger struggle for “the liberation and salvation of the Black nation.”

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Dr. King’s always evolving political priorities have created “blind spots” for supporters and critics of one of the most important figures of Black America’s twentieth-century struggle for first-class citizenship. If nothing else, this moment serves as definitive proof of our collective need to study, study, and study some more. Failure to do so guarantees our inability to understand a past that serves as the foundation for a present that has yet to correct the misunderstood past.

Staff Writer; Dr. James Thomas Jones III

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One may also connect with this brother via TwitterDrJamestJones.