U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Black Power” and Stokely Carmichael’s Defining of Ideology in 1967

To end our series on 1967’s importance to the development of Black intellectual ideology, it makes logical sense to turn to the classic book Black Power. Written by activist Stokely Carmichael and political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power was written with the general reader in mind. The very idea of “black power” was under siege from the moment Carmichael uttered it at a rally during the “March Against Fear” in Mississippi in the summer of 1966. When he insisted that he would no longer go to jail and instead wanted Black Power, Carmichael tapped into a growing frustrating among the Black community with the scope of progress on political and economic rights for Black Americans.

Creating an ideology (or, at the very least, giving voice to one that was previously ignored) always includes a period of having to define and explain that ideology to people who are not your target audience. So it was with Carmichael and Hamilton’s book. Again, the book has to be considered in the context of the public battle over what “Black power” actually meant. For many mainstream liberals (not to mention even conservatives, although that’s a blog post for another day) Black Power was a worrying concept. NAACP president Roy Wilkins, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and even Martin Luther King (initially) condemned the concept. Newspapers across the nation had a field day depicting the idea as nothing more than black racism, an anti-white ideology.

The very idea of Black Power has to be understood in context of a mid-1960s discontent with modern liberalism from a variety of places. Black Americans were understandably impatient with a significant lack of progress on race relations and, more importantly, on economic advancement. The Anti-war Left was slowly gaining traction against the Vietnam War. And, more importantly for midterm elections, many white moderates were tiring of the “long, hot summers” that seemed to rage in America in 1964, 1965, and 1966. As mentioned before, “white backlash” became the theme of the 1966 midterm elections, and it appeared momentum on the “race question” was slowed, if not completely stopped.

Don’t forget, too, that revolutionary fervor was in the air. Many eventual Black Power activists were fired up by the writings of Franz Fanon, the actions of Che Guevera, and the rhetoric of Malcolm X. But I also think they were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s no coincidence, after all, that Carmichael started out in the movement before becoming well known as a Black Power advocate. All of these elements helped to shape Black Power advocates, but they also made it necessary for those advocates to showcase a blueprint for action to other Americans, reticent to respond to calls for aggressive Black empowerment.

Beginning with a critique of Black America’s “colonial” relationship with white America, Carmichael and Hamilton proceed to explain just what Black Power means. It is interesting to examine how the telling and writing of history plays into their definition of Black Power. The two authors make a nod to the then-changing historiography of Reconstruction. Wrote Carmichael and Hamilton, on the shift from the emphasis on the heroism of the “Redeemers” toward understanding the plight of newly freed African Americans, “Professor John Hope Franklin’s Reconstruction or Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction should be sufficient to dispel inaccurate historical notions, but the larger society persists in its own self-serving accounts.”[1] Black Power, in this case, meant more than changing material conditions or the rights of Black citizens in America. It also meant a change in how all Americans thought of each other in a historical context.[2]

The most interesting section of the book, speaking of history, is who the authors compare the potential Black Power coalition to in American history. They make historical comparisons with Blacks Americans who decided to join the Populist movement in the 1880s and 1890s. The thrust of the comparison is that, in both the 1890s and again in the 1960s, white Americans were far better off than Black Americans and were in a position to, if necessary, drop Blacks from their political coalition. The authors argued that true coalition building involved both sides having power, which would be a far cry from the position of Black Americans in political coalitions in the 1870s (with Republicans in the South), 1880s (with independents or Populists), or 1930s through 1960s (with liberals and other groups in the Democratic Party).

The book is, in an important sense, a document of historical memory for African Americans. They not only make nods to the Populist movement (and what it did and didn’t do for Black Americans) and Reconstruction, but also to the Tuskegee Machine of the early 20th century and the frustration of Black Americans living in ghettoes in the 1950s experiencing a Civil Rights Movement that, while important for them, seemed far away from their own material concerns. In comparison with the other books I’ve written about, the Carmichael and Hamilton work is the most historically grounded, taking a long view of African American political history that other activists were also beginning to do in public.

Next week, some brief thoughts on reaction to the book before summing it all up and asking the big question, just what affect did 1967 have on Black intellectual history afterwards?

[1] Carmichael, Stokely and Hamilton, Charles V. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Vintage Books: New York, 1967, pg. 36.

[2] No coincidence that the Black Studies movement begins right around this same time, although one must never forget the work of figures such as Franklin, Dubois, or Carter G. Woodson (among so many others) in the decades prior to 1967 in laying the groundwork for thinking critically about African American and African history.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, As you may know, Tommie Shelby has some helpful comments on the Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and Hamilton book in We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (2005). For example, he mentions their now well-recognized distinction between overt acts of racism and “covert institutional racism that functions to subordinate low-status racial groups through hidden operations of established and respected forces in society (such as the criminal justice system, the public education system, or corporate America).” It’s this latter form of racism that remains recalcitrant and is evidence of an equally obdurate racist ideology (if perhaps subconsciously held or even explicitly disavowed by its adherents: both being species of denial). It is this latter form of racism which is analogous (as you note) to neocolonialism, and thus blacks are “essentially in a colonial relationship with the white majority.” After sympathetic clarification of their conception of “Black Power, Shelby proceeds to delineate the contours of the “collective action” problem he believes this conception entails (a topic of discussion for another day!).

  2. Ah indeed, excellent point! I’ve been meaning to further examine the arguments of that particular book that you mentioned.

    One of my favorite elements of very recent African American historiography has been the examination of post-1970 Black ideology. More books are beginning to look at how ideologies of integration, Black Power, etc. combined to give additional fodder to Black American activists and politicians during a more conservative era. I’m really intrigued to see what David Chappell has written in his newest book, “Waking from the Dream,” which comes out in January. It discusses the Civil Rights movement after 1968, which makes me curious as to how he’s going to write about Black Power AND the transition of many activists into the political arena.

  3. Robert,

    What follows may anticipate next week’s post, but I’ll go ahead anyway:

    1. What do you know about the sales figures for Black Power?

    2. What do you know about the non-intellectual audience for Black Power? Perhaps that will be addressed in your look at intellectual reactions, through reviews I assume.

    3. Do you think the power and effectiveness of Black Power is related to its historical groundedness? Perhaps the historical thinking utilized by, and done in, that work legitimized its radical suggestions?

    – TL

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