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Black Power: The Working Class Response to the Civil Rights Movement by Ari SchoenburgSchoenburg

Within public memory, understandings of African-American organized protests are commonly divided between the passive resistance of Civil Rights activists and the call to violence of Black Power activists. The Black Power Movement of the late 1960s is often viewed as a violent response to the Civil Rights Movement. This perception has often served to demonize Black Power while also ignoring a number of central accomplishments of the Movement including the implementation of free breakfast programs and the establishment of black studies classes, programs, and departments within universities.

Although the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement are remembered for their differences in tactical uses of violence, from an ideological perspective, the Black Power Movement came into existence as a black working class response to the perceived middle class goals of Civil Rights Movement. The Black Power Movement was a call for revolution that required mobilizing people based on the needs and identity of the black working class rather than a belief in violence or non-violence. As shown in Stokely Carmichael’s early works that discussed the initial goals of Black Power, the racial integration successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not address many of the concerns of the black working class. I contend that the ideological origins of the Black Power Movement can be framed as a black working class response to the limitations of civil rights reform. The early speeches and writings of the Black Power Movement examine the roles of race, class, integration, and violence in the black freedom struggle.

Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks, two leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), introduced the term “Black Power” as a political slogan in June 1966 during the March Against Fear in Mississippi. Carmichael announced to a crowd of about six hundred, “We want Black Power!” and “We don’t have to be ashamed of it” (Weingroff). A few months later, on October 29, 1966, Carmichael delivered a speech entitled “Black Power” at UC Berkeley to a mostly white, middle class audience. In the speech, Carmichael outlined the ideology behind the emerging movement. Carmichael and Charles Hamilton expanded these ideas further in their 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, the Black Power manifesto. Carmichael argued that the flaw in the Civil Rights Movement’s ideology was integration, or the attempt of black citizens to fit into the institutions of white America, the institutions of oppression. Carmichael stated in his speech that “every civil rights bill in this country was passed for white people, not black people…So some boys had to write a bill to tell the white man, ‘He’s a human being; don’t stop him.’ That bill was for that white man, not for me. I knew it all the time.” Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated de jure (legal) segregation in public spaces, it did not address the de facto (factual) segregation throughout the nation that made true integration impossible. It did not change the racial attitudes throughout the nation either (Berrey). This critique on the lack of importance and necessity of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for the African-American community was an attack on the way the Civil Rights Movement had been conducted up to that point. This speech was delivered to mostly white middle class liberal students and can be seen as a direct message to integrationists—black and white—that the voice of the masses of working class African-Americans could not be sustained by the middle-class ideals of integration.

For Carmichael, the problem with integration and the legislative civil rights gains were that they failed to reach the black community as a whole. The successes of the Civil Rights Movement benefited an elite group of black individuals who gained the legal ability to succeed in white institutions. “We cannot afford to be concerned about six percent of the children in this country, black children, who you allow to come into white schools,” Carmichael said in his speech. “We have ninety-four percent who still live in shacks. We are going to be concerned about those ninety-four percent.” Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 appeared positive for the African-American community as a whole, in actuality it polarized the community by expanding the opportunities for the black middle class while leaving the working class behind.

In 1967, after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, the majority of schools in inner city “ghetto” communities in the North were still segregated due to institutionalized racism. In Chicago, 87% of black children attended predominantly black schools. These trends were similar in other cities such as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City (Carmichael and Hamilton 157). This failure to create progress for working class African-Americans, despite numerous speeches delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calling for the end of slums, planted the seeds for Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power Movement to gain momentum.

African-American residents of the “slums” and “ghettos” were continually stopped from advancing in society due to institutional and psychological barriers that were not addressed by the Civil Rights Act. The United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1967 provided testimonies from “slum residents” who “see themselves as isolated people who have to go it alone because other people aren’t concerned with them,” and “the younger generation in the community has no concept of social relationship with any people other than Negroes” (“A Time to Listen” 7). These are feelings of both racial isolation and class isolation.

Three years after the Act was passed, the working class of African-Americans felt isolated not just from the white community but also from fellow African-Americans who did not live in the slums and ghettos with them. Carmichael emphasizes this divide between black political leaders and the average black citizen: “these are black people… who could provide useful leadership roles in the black communities but do not because they have become beholden to the white power structure” (Carmichael and Hamilton 13). The integration effort was viewed by Carmichael as an integration into the middle class white power structure and value system. Carmichael believed this integration was at odds with the needs of the black community as a whole but affected the working class the most. Integration was also viewed as demeaning to the black community as it implied that the only way to be successful and good was to be part of the white community. Carmichael thought that the goal should instead have been to take pride in and strengthen the black community (Carmichael and Hamilton 13).

The issue was not that African Americans couldn’t succeed in some form under the goals of integration, as black elected officials and community leaders defied this perception. The issue, instead, was that the working class couldn’t succeed under the goals of integration and that the black community as a whole could not reach its full potential by inserting itself into the pre-existing oppressive white institutions. Integration was an individual choice dependent on having the resources to be immersed in the white institutions and then choosing to move into them. These individual acts of integration did not yield the power to change the oppressive nature of these institutions; rather, they allowed for the perpetuation of them (Carmichael). According to Carmichael, “In order to get out of that oppression one must wield the group power that one has,” and Carmichael believed that that could only be achieved by creating new all-black institutions that learned from the mistakes of their white counterparts. He stated, “We reject the goal of assimilation into middle-class America because the values of that class are in themselves anti-humanist and because that class as a social force perpetuates racism” (Carmichael and Hamilton 41). Integration into middle-class America meant integration into racist institutions, but it was still a possible achievement for the black middle class. Yet integration, central to the ideology of the Civil Rights Movement, proved impossible and isolating for the working class blacks that lacked the resources to successfully integrate. Therefore, it was clearly not the viable solution to rid American society of racism. Curtis J. Austin’s book Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party describes how Black Power enabled leaders like Malcolm X and Carmichael “to look the white community in the face and say: ‘We don’t think your civilization is worth the effort of any black man to try to integrate into’” (Austin 8).

Carmichael capitalized on the growing divide between middle class and working class African-Americans in order to create a revolutionary social movement that would completely change the current system as opposed to becoming part of the existing order. As a community organizer, Carmichael understood the importance of creating support for a revolution based off of a group identity. The issue of class allowed for this separation from the mainstream Civil Rights Movement because it was not a choice; people who lived in the slums was lower class because of socialization and not because they necessarily wished to be or embraced it. Therefore individuals of low socioeconomic status were identified as belonging to this group of the lower class and were automatically affected and alienated by the lack of inclusion in the Civil Rights Movement. Carmichael and Black Power leaders did not create the division between the middle and working classes, but they understood how to take advantage of this isolation to create a unified support for a new type of movement in the black freedom struggle. This new revolutionary Black Power Movement would attempt to create a more equitable society both racially and economically (Carmichael).

If Carmichael and Hamilton had focused the ideology of Black Power around violence, the Black Power Movement would not have been as effective because beliefs are constantly changing and do not promote the same sense of unity and loyalty as do social identities. In 1966, Philip Altbach wrote an article for the left leaning Indian magazine, the Economic and Political Weekly entitled, “‘Black Power’ and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.” In the article, Altbach argues: “It is clear that non-violence was primarily a tactical weapon in the past, and most Negroes did not have the philosophical attachment to it that King [had]” (234). Despite the changes in legislation that the Civil Rights Movement had secured, the lack of progress in the implementation of these changes caused growing disillusion with the Movement. It became clear that for many Civil Rights supporters, non-violence was not a deep ideological belief; violence and non-violence were simply viewed as tools used depending on the circumstances. The fluidity of belief in this tactic further explained how the force behind Black Power was the unification of people based on a mixture of their class and race. Class and race were both forced identities, rather than violence, a tactic that’s effectiveness depended on many other situational circumstances and more importantly relied on a choice of individuals to believe in its power.

Although the Black Power Movement is commonly perceived as more violent than the Civil Rights Movement, the ideology of the Black Power Movement was based on the ability to utilize the collective identities of the black working class. The strength of the Black Power Movement grew as a response to the isolating socioeconomic divisions in the Civil Rights Movement and the need to create a system that worked for all African-Americans regardless of class. Violence played the role of a tactical approach to implementing Black Power, but it was not an ingrained value in the ideology, as the opening of Carmichael and Hamilton’s book attests:

This book presents a political framework and ideology which represents the last reasonable opportunity for this society to work out its racial problems short of prolonged destructive guerrilla warfare. That such violent warfare may be unavoidable is not herein denied. But if there is the slightest chance to avoid it, the politics of Black Power as described in this book is seen as the only viable hope. (Carmichael and Hamilton inscription)

In short, the ideology does not condemn the use of violence as a tactic for creating autonomous black institutions insofar as Black Power can be achieved without the use of violence only if the other side cooperates. Black Power is presented as the final option before overt warfare, meaning that violence is not ingrained in it—violence could become a viable tactic in the absence of cooperation, but it is not a necessity in the political framework of the Black Power ideology.

The use of violence as a tool in the revolution, as opposed to a value in the ideology, is also seen in Huey Newton’s The Original Vision of the Black Panther Party. Newton wrote that “the gun by all revolutionary principles is a tool to be used in our strategy; it is not an end in itself”. This was Newton’s response to the split between himself and Eldridge Cleaver over the understanding of the role of violence within the party. Cleaver saw the need for violence and for an armed urban guerilla war, whereas Newton and Bobby Seale saw the necessity of moving away from violence in order to fulfill the Black Power vision as the times called for it. By 1972 the party had taken severe blows due to the FBI COINTELPRO operations. It was understood that violence was not the most effective strategy anymore because it made the Black Panther Party (BPP) leaders moving targets for government violence and murder (Austin 326).

The split between Newton and Cleaver resulted in a new phase for the BPP that remained true to Black Power but left the violence behind. As Austin puts it:

The phase where violent rhetoric and picking up the gun served as the centerpiece ended. The new phase ushered in an era where the party emphasized community programs…it channeled its energies and focus into serving the people…the party now substituted self-help, economic development, and voter education for an emphasis on guns and violence. (326)

The move away from violence was necessary in 1972 because the government was targeting BPP members, and it had substantially weakened the party (326). By shifting the tactics used during this time from violence and armed resistance to self-help programs and economic development, the BPP stayed true to the ideals of Black Power that urged the creation of black institutions and the alleviation of the economic plight of the working class without using violence. Violence may have been a necessary tool in the early years of the BPP, but the successful shift away from violence in the later years proves that violence was not a fundamental part of the BPP’s ideology.

The Black Panther Party’sTen Point Program, which described the ten “wants” or goals of Party ideology, only mentions the use of violence one time. The seventh “want” is for an end to police brutality and murder against African-Americans. In service to this want, the BPP felt that “all black people should arm themselves for self defense” against the police (“The Black Panther Ten-Point Program” 16-17). Despite the mention of violence in the BPP platform, the Party’s goal was to end police brutality and to do so by using self-defense as a tactic. The goal of having African-Americans bear arms in self-defense can be interpreted as a call to create an autonomous police force that would fulfill the ideology of creating independent African-American institutions that morally exceed the pre-existing oppressive ones.

A revised version of the Ten-Point Program redrafted in 1972 (found in Newton’s Original Vision of the Black Panther Party) slightlychanges the rhetoric of the seventh goal to make it more clear that the basis of it was not rooted in violence but, rather, autonomy. The BPP wrote: “we believe that the racist and fascist government of the United States uses its domestic enforcement agencies to carry out its program of oppression against Black People, other people of color and poor people in the United States. We believe it is our right, therefore, to defend ourselves against such armed forces” (Newton 16-17). Unlike the previous version that simply states the importance of self-defense, this version shows that self-defense is a direct response to the oppressive nature of the police forces, and it is a tactic which works towards the goal of institutional change.

The goal of the revised Ten-Point Program remained the creation of a justice system that was morally above the previous one that murdered and beat the black youths of the nation (Carmichael). In the case of police brutality, the BPP deemed violence the only effective way to deal with the oppression. Of the ten “wants,” this is the only one that determines violence as the sole answer to fulfill its goal, and it only calls for violence as a response to the provocation by the police. The overarching goal of the Movement remained the creation of a society that does not oppress people racially or by class (“The Black Panther Ten-Point Program” 16-17). Tactics are used depending on the situation and are dynamic, but the goals of the ideology are static. People’s understanding of the Black Power Movement is limited by the ways contemporary society frames the Movement’s use of particular rhetorical stances; violence was not an inherent part of the BPP’s ideology.

According to Carmichael, the association of Black Power and violence was a result of the white community’s inability to understand “blackness” (and the fear that this lack of understanding brought) in addition to the mobilization of African-Americans attempting to create a new order (Carmichael). As Carmichael puts it, “The only time I hear people talk about nonviolence is when black people move to defend themselves against white people” (Carmichael). Unfortunately, violence was an everyday part of people’s lives—there was a war in Vietnam, violent and non-violent black activists were lynched and murdered, and there was violence within the black community itself—but “as soon as black people start to move [against white people], the double standard comes into being” (Carmichael). Just as stopping communism and spreading democracy were the goals of the War in Vietnam, and oppressing and suppressing the African-American community were the goals of the whites that attacked and killed blacks, the Black Power Movement aimed to create autonomy and used aggression as one tactic to gain that independence.

Violence was ingrained in multiple U.S. institutions at the time, and the claim that Black Power was a militant response to the Civil Rights Movement overlooks the fact that the use of violence was commonplace at the time. The labeling of Black Power as violent was the white community “projecting their same fears and guilt on us [the black community]” (Carmichael). The use of violence as a tactic was not a response to the pacifism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other prominent peaceful Civil Rights leaders; it was a natural, socialized response to the violence that plagued American society. Black Power was an ideological response to the Civil Rights Movement’s isolation of the working class, but the use of violence as a tactic was a natural response to their environment and the white institutions’ use of violence to suppress the African-American community.

The ideological tensions between Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement lay in the issue of middle class African-Americans versus working class African-Americans and the issue of integration versus autonomy, not violence. King understood that the phrase “Black Power” would make negotiating and organizing for black rights impossible with those who perpetuated racism and capitalism. In this way, King believed that Black Power impeded his goal of integration. However, King privately told Carmichael “maybe I just don’t talk about it” (qtd. in Austin 17). In other words, King was not opposed to the concept or ideology of Black Power because of its violent tactics; he was opposed to it because verbally supporting Black Power meant the end of integration efforts.

Although it is commonly believed that the Black Power Movement emerged as a frustrated response to the inability of the Civil Rights Movement to create true social change with non-violent tactics, in actuality it emerged as a response to the isolation of working class blacks from the middle class goal of integration. Integration allowed for the mobility of middle class black individuals but left working class blacks and the African-American community at large out of the equation. The leaders of the Black Power Movement capitalized on this rift between classes to gain solid support for their movement to create all-black institutions. Violence was simply one tactic used by the Black Power Movement in an attempt to successfully achieve their ideological goal of black autonomy, but violence was not ingrained in the ideology itself. The examination of documents that lay out the major ideas behind the ideology such as Stokely Carmichael’s speech about Black Power, his book about Black Power, and the charter of the Black Panther Party show the Movement’s frustrations with the black middle class’s exclusionary goal of integration as the focal point of the ideology. None of these documents focus on violence as an inherent part of Black Power ideology; instead, they present it as a tactic susceptible to change based on the necessity of the political landscape.

Works Cited

Altbach, Philip. “’Black Power’ and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.” Economic and Political Weekly 1.6 (1966): 233-34. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

Austin, Curtis. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006. Print.

Berrey, Stephen. “History 262: The American South—A History of Race and Culture Since Reconstruction.”University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI. Winter Semester 2013. Class Lecture.

Carmichael, Stokely. “Black Power Speech Text.” Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project.Oct. 1966. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.

Newton, Huey P. The Original Vision of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther Party: 1973. Pamphlet. Print.

“The Black Panther Ten-Point Program.” The North American Review 253.4 (July-Aug. 1968) 16-17. JSTOR. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

Weingroff, Richard. “The Road to Civil Rights: March Against Fear.” US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A Time to Listen… A Time to Act: Voices from the Ghettos of the Nation’s Cities. Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1967. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Ari Schoenburg is a History major at the University of Michigan, and is originally from Fairfax, Virginia. She wrote this paper as a research assignment for a History methods course and is grateful for the help she received from Professors Brian Porter-Scüzs, Stephen Berrey, Anne Reef.

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