‘Black Power’ turns 50: How the catchphrase revolutionized the civil rights movement

© Carlo Allegri
Fifty years ago this Thursday, a pivotal speech in Greenwood, Mississippi radically changed the direction of the global civil rights movement forever – when Trinidadian immigrant Stokely Carmichael popularized the phrase “Black Power.”

June 16, 1966.

Malcolm X had been shot dead by three members of the Nation of Islam the year before. Martin Luther King Jr would be killed by a southern white supremacist two years later.

It was on this date that Carmichael was arrested and then released from jail for participating in the “March Against Fear” started by James Meredith, the education trailblazer who was shot by a white hardware clerk named Aubrey James Norvell.

As chair of the iconic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael addressed a large crowd in Greenwood, declaring that “the only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over.”

He then uttered the words that electrified and emboldened a new generation of Black organizers.

“We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” Carmichael said.

The phrase became the #BlackLivesMatter of its time, but before Twitter, Facebook, and 24 hour cable news could spread the word.

It was a long road that led to that moment ‒ one that saw the Trinidad-born Carmichael change his outlook and strategy on how to stop white supremacy.

In the years that preceded, Carmichael had been following in the footsteps of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and, like him, Carmichael was an advocate of non-violent protests, joining SNCC and eventually taking over its leadership from John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia.

Writing in his autobiography, Carmichael said that “non-violence is a philosophy of life, an ethical principle, a way of being in the world verging on the religious.”

“On another level, however, it is merely a strategic approach to struggle,” he added.

Regardless of the attacks and murder of black people and their movement’s allies, King, who saw Carmichael as a promising leader in the civil rights movement, was of the belief that such atrocities would soften the “hearts” of the wider American population.

Increasingly however, Carmichael’s beliefs began to waiver and the brazen shooting of James Meredith was the last straw.

Top leaders joined forces to complete the solo march Meredith had started, including Carmichael and SNCC, which called for a more radical and more militant philosophy if necessary.

When the march reached Greenwood, Mississippi, the demonstrators began setting up tents, which police warned against, as they didn’t have “permission” to do so.

Police arrested Carmichael for disobeying orders and left him behind bars for six hours, releasing him just ahead of the scheduled rally where he would make history.

The phrase is thought to have first been spoken by abolitionist Frederick Douglass in his 1855 speech The Doom of the Black Power.” Richard Wright’s 1954 book Black Power planted another seed and by early 1966, Adam Clayton Powell said “to demand these God-given rights is to seek black power,” while SNCC field organizer Willie Ricks used it to rile and rally the people.

When Carmichael took to the stage set up on the back of a flatbed truck, he declared: “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested ‒ and I ain’t going to jail no more!”

Similar to the traditional call and response of the Black church, the first time he shouted the now famous phrase, the crowd repeatedly roared in unison, “Black Power!”

The slogan took hold across the US, but with a different meaning for different people.

Many white people were “uneasy,”according to historian Peniel Joseph, who wrote a biography on Carmichael.

“They assumed that Black Power meant being anti-white and really sort of violent, foreboding,” Peniel says.

For black folks, white supremacy was violent and foreboding, whereas this new slogan became a rallying cry “for cultural, political, and economic self-determination.”

Today, Facebook has a page devoted to the debate titled, "Why is it that a Black Power page is okay but a White Power page would be racist?" that cites Carmichael’s speech in defense of its policy.

Just four months after he spoke in Mississippi, he expanded on the “Black Power” concept during a Berkeley, California conference in front of thousands of people including members of the brand new Black Panther Party for Self-Defense which was created down the road in Oakland on October 15, 1966.

Dismissing the “intellectual masturbation” over what it meant, Carmichael defined it as a “psychological struggle,” before going on to describe the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a “failure.”

To remove the inequalities, black people had to “be seen in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves,” Carmichael argued.

The following year, as armed Black Panther Party members walked onto the floor of the California legislature, Carmichael explained during a speech in Stockholm, Sweden that while Dr King had been right with a lot of his passive approach, “he only made one fallacious assumption.”

“In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience. The United States has no conscience,” he said.

“Young activists throughout the world embraced the phrase, making it their own and expanding the dynamic of struggle,”according to Karen Spellman, director of the SNCC Legacy Project.

Carmichael told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in 1998 that he was “overwhelmed by the response of the masses” and “didn’t know we would touch such a responsive chord.”

Like many civil rights activists at the time, he was also vocal about his objection to the Vietnam War. He coined another phrase that spread like “wildfire” when he was asked by reporters in Staten Island, New York if he was going to fight in the southeast Asian 'police action.' His reply: “Hell no, I won’t go.”

The response of the CIA and J Edgar Hoover’s FBI to the movement was brutal and unrelenting, forcing him to move to Guinea with his then-wife Miriam Makeba in 1969 and later changing his name to Kwame Ture, in honor of the two African leaders, Nkrumah and Touré.

He ended up spending more of his life in Africa than the 15 years he lived in the US or the first 11 years in Trinidad.

Up until his death from prostate cancer in 1998 (which he believed was caused by the FBI’s “advanced germ and chemical warfare”), Carmichael continued his fight for equality through his work with the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, although he frequently traveled around the world encouraging an expansion of the pan-Africanism movement.

While he always suspected the US government was tracking him, near the end of his life in the late 1990s, he said “right white,” the “stabilizing force they could depend upon to attack us, is now attacking them! I see white people with guns in their hands saying ‘We want to blow off the heads of the FBI’. They have less time for us.”

Five decades on, “Black Power” still ignites and inflames passions across the US and around the world.

After eight years of a half black, half white president, both presumptive nominees for president have troubling track records on race ‒ Republican Donald Trump has made several racist comments during the campaign, while Democrat Hillary Clinton has been blasted for referring to young black men as “super predators” and praising the controversial Crime Bill signed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

The increase in fatal shootings of black folks by white cops in recent years has necessitated the creation of a new slogan: #BlackLivesMatter.

Carmichael’s biographer Joseph says “there is no question” that #BLM is “organically connected” to the Black Power movement

Sherie Randolph, associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Michigan, believes what BLM is “doing to confront police violence is textbook Black Power.”

“Every generation does it differently, shaped by the time they are in,” Joseph says. “Young black activists today are updating the tradition on their own terms.”