The year I was born (in Northern California), the Black Panther Party had not yet disbanded and Huey Percy Newton was still its Oakland-based leader. Looking back now, I’m able to recognize the impact the revolutionary group had on my childhood environment.
I went to schools that served free and reduced-cost meals thanks to the influence of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. Their adult education programs and the way they raised civil rights awareness in the face of rampant police brutality definitely inspired my study of student rights and my participation in student government. Their “Black is Beautiful” messaging taught me to have pride in my Blackness. Though I understood early on the politics of racism, I never once believed I was inferior or undeserving because of the color of my skin.
Because of the Black Panther Party’s presence in the Bay Area, I grew up with flashcards of Black history makers (from Phillis Wheatley to Jack Johnson) —renderings of their faces on one side with their biographies on the reverse. My family regularly visited Marcus Book Store, the oldest Black bookstore in the nation, and our home library was filled with purchases. We attended Black and African festivals, Black-owned restaurants, Black and African film festivals, Black theatrical presentations, African dance classes and so on and so on. Every chance to experience and celebrate our culture in our otherwise predominantly White world, we took. Every chance to spend dollars in support of our community, we rarely missed.
I didn’t know at the time that the strong sense of self I was developing was made possible by the legacy of the Black Power Movement. Though I was often curious as to why what I saw on television never reflected my reality (with the exception of Vegetable Soup and certain BET programming), I never believed that the perception I had of my Blackness was anything less than commonplace. (Fun fact: James Earl Jones, Bette Midler and Daniel Stern were all cast members of Vegetable Soup.)
What was the Black Power Movement? The Digital Public Library of America defines it as follows:
The Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was a political and social movement whose advocates believed in racial pride, self-sufficiency, and equality for all people of Black and African descent. Credited with first articulating “Black Power” in 1966, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael represented a generation of Black activists who participated in both Civil Rights and the Black Power movements. By the mid 1960s, many of them no longer saw nonviolent protests as a viable means of combating racism. New organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, the Black Women’s United Front, and the Nation of Islam, developed new cultural, political, and economic programs and grew memberships that reflected this shift. Desegregation was insufficient—only through the deconstruction of White power structures could a space be made for a Black political voice to give rise to collective Black power. Because of these beliefs, the movement is often represented as violent, anti-White, and anti-law enforcement.
Obviously, I take issue with the last sentence of this definition because it is a gross mischaracterization. First of all, the idea of “Black Power” was not about Black folks suddenly seeing themselves as superior to any other race just as “Black Lives Matter” is not about diminishing the importance of other lives. As Stokely Carmichael said, “This country knows what power is. It knows it very well. And it knows what Black Power is ’cause it deprived Black people of it for four hundred years.” Black Power is about overcoming and dismantling the notion that we belong to a permanent subservient class that is incapable and undeserving of economic, social and political equality. It is about claiming what is rightfully ours under the Constitution.
Secondly, the Black Power Movement was not about violently attacking the government (or police) or any other racial group, nor did it advocate unlawful or illegal behavior. As Carmichael said, “We are on the move for our liberation. We have been tired of trying to prove things to White people. We are tired of trying to explain to White people that we’re not going to hurt them. We are concerned with getting the things we want, the things that we have to have to be able to function. ”
The Black Power Movement began to grow and proliferate in the face of the violence perpetrated on civil and human rights activists regardless of and despite Dr. King’s nonviolent approach. The movement promoted the idea of, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Nonviolence would be met with nonviolence but violence was not going to simply be accepted when each and every human has the right to defend him/herself against harm.
The movement was not anti-White as it sought out partnership and collaborative opportunities with all groups, regardless of race or ethnicity. Carmichael said, “We’re trying to organize poor Whites on a base where they can begin to move around the question of economic exploitation and political disfranchisement. We know, we’ve heard the theory several times, but few people are willing to go into there. The question is, can the White activist not try to be a Pepsi generation who comes alive in the Black community, but can he be a man who’s willing to move into the White community and start organizing where the organization is needed?”
The Black Power Movement was not anti-law enforcement. The Black Panther’s Ten Point Program stated:
We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People. – We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self- defense.
We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails. – We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We Want All Black People When Brought To Trial To Be Tried In Court By A Jury Of Their Peer Group Or People From Their Black Communities, As Defined By The Constitution Of The United States. – We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being, tried by all-White juries that have no understanding of the “average reasoning man” of the Black community.
I will not talk about how the Black Power Movement made a habit of calling out injustices perpetrated by the American government all over the world and especially during the Vietnam War. Nor will I go into the war that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI waged against the Black Power Movement—specifically the Black Panther Party because of the implications and popularity of their equality rhetoric. But I do want to make it clear how big of an impact the movement made—and I say this from personal experience. It was HUGE. Without the movement, I would not be the writer I am today. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this post nor would I have drafted the 20 other posts I’ve produced this month. Without the movement, there’s no way in hell I would have had the resources to do so.
I don’t believe the spirit of the Black Power Movement is dead, because it still lives within me, it will be passed down to my children, and I know I’m not alone in that resolution. While I see that the movement lacks the same tone, tactics and level of unity of yesteryears, I do see vestiges of its urgency and its organization in the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements. I also see how it has grown and adapted into things like AfroPunk and WeBuyBlack and CodeSwitch.
Yes, it’s still alive; I just hate that it even had to exist in the first place.