|SNCC and Black Power
From: Encyclopedia of American History: Postwar United States, 1946 to 1968, Revised Edition (Volume IX).
Coined by Stokely Carmichael on a march in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1966, the phrase Black Power constituted an African-American call-to-action in cultural, racial, and political spheres.
In 1966, the mainstream Civil Rights movement lost much of its momentum. Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of the original goals of the movement had been achieved. Yet racism and discrimination persisted, and young African-American radicals continued pressing for further change. One such activist was Stokely Carmichael, the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Carmichael had become disenchanted with the notions of nonviolence as a tactic in the struggle for civil rights. As civil rights workers sometimes faced deadly violence, he felt they had to respond. Furthermore, he believed that integration as a goal was "a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy."
Following his arrest for trying to erect a tent city on an African-American school playground for SNCC supporters, Carmichael reached the breaking point. Addressing those in attendance at the Greenwood march about his arrest in the African-American schoolyard, he said, "Everybody owns our neighborhoods except us…. Now we're going to get something and we're going to get some representing. We ain't going to worry about whether it's white—maybe black. Don't be ashamed. We been saying 'Freedom' for six years and we ain't got nothin.' What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!" Carmichael believed that Black Power meant "smashing everything Western Civilization has created." In addition to his opposition to integration, Carmichael also advocated the need for African Americans to take power for themselves, both politically and culturally. Perhaps the most important aspect of this call-to-arms was the notion that African Americans needed to take pride in their blackness.
Following Carmichael's proclamation, the notion of Black Power spread like wildfire. On the West Coast in October 1966, two African Americans in Oakland, California, founded the Black Panthers, a paramilitary organization. The group advocated the expansion of Black Power ideals. It sought self-determination for the African-American community, better housing, better education, and an end to police brutality. Black Panther members donned black leather jackets and black berets as symbols of unity, and they carried firearms.
The Black Power slogan was a perfect way for militant young African Americans to express their frustration with the nonviolent, church-based movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. These young radicals wished to mold their communities into strong, cohesive units that reflected their racial consciousness. Politically they wanted nothing to do with patronizing white liberals, who had been active in the movement in the past.
The Black Power movement had a significant impact upon the African-American movement as a whole. Soon African Americans were highlighting the black aesthetic in the arts and literature. Many African Americans adopted a natural "Afro" look, leaving complex hair-straightening techniques behind. Many individuals chose to wear traditional African clothing and use a traditional black dialect. The terms black and Afro-American took the place of Negro in referring to African Americans.
The extent of the Black Power movement found its way into the world of sports as well. At the 1968 Summer Olympic games in Mexico City, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos lowered their heads and raised black-gloved fists as the "Star-Spangled Banner" played during the medal ceremony. A traditional symbol of Black Power, the act aroused both pride in some circles and anger in others.
With all of the positive aspects the Black Power movement brought to African Americans, it had its setbacks as well. Although the movement proclaimed to want to help all African Americans, women were often left out of the picture. When asked about the role of women, Stokely Carmichael once remarked with a sexual allusion as he declared that "the only position for women in SNCC is prone." African-American women, angered by that statement, became increasingly involved in the black feminist movement. Meanwhile, the Black Power movement horrified white America, which still clung to hopes of nonviolence. In the end, the Black Power movement lost political momentum in the 1970s, but it left a legacy of cultural pride.