Book Launch -- Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America
Peniel Joseph, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, SUNY Stony Brook, and former Wilson Center Fellow, author; commentators Ronald Walters, Professor of Government and Director, African American Leadership Institute, University of Maryland; Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, Professor of History and Director, Public History Program, Howard University.
From Harlem and Haiti to Indonesia and Nigeria, the influence of the American black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s stretched across much of the world. In contrast to the wealth of studies covering the American civil rights movement, the black power movement has been largely ignored by scholars. Peniel Joseph's Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour, presented at a Division of United States Studies program, was written to fill the gap and examine the movement's impact.
Traditional accounts of the movement place black power's origins in the 1960s, when three events brought it to the nation's attention: the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s campaign in early 1966 to alleviate urban misery in Chicago, and Stokely Carmichael's invocation of the phrase "Black Power" during the June 1966 "March Against Fear" in Mississippi. Joseph, however, told the audience that the story actually began a decade earlier, when Northern black militants such as Malcolm X began building coalitions with civil rights activists, black entertainers, and third world advocates, emphasizing black racial pride and self-determination. While the country was focused on events such as the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education and passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, a black nationalist movement that would come to be called "Black Power" was born.
One of the driving forces of the movement was Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At a time when many U.S. cities were experiencing devastating riots, Carmichael's call for "Black Power" appealed to many disillusioned African Americans and encapsulated the aspirations of black activists from the rural south to the urban north. Carmichael signaled the eclecticism of the black power movement by extending his activism into other areas such as the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1967, he shared an anti-Vietnam war platform with Dr. King and went on a global tour that emphasized anti-colonialism and self-determination. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party, comprised of students, laborers, and ex-offenders, seized the black power mantle as it set out to organize the working class, helping to remake black identity while provoking a visceral negative reaction by white Americans. The Party gave black nationalism a militant edge at the same time its emphasis on cultural autonomy and black identity connected it to the larger movement for equality and self-determination.
The Black Panther Party, along with the rest of the black power movement, was eventually crushed under the weight of internal struggles, drug abuse and law enforcement. The legacy of the movement, Joseph noted, can still be found not only in the resurgence of popular interest in Malcolm X but in elements of contemporary African-American culture such as hip-hop.
Popular emphasis on the contentious aspects of the black power movement eclipsed the other aspects of black nationalism which, according to commentator Ronald Walters, is the core ideology of the black community. It incorporates a protest against this nation's treatment of black people and includes an emphasis on the empowerment of black people that had its genesis in the anti-slavery movement. The Negro Convention movement of the 1830s-1860s, for example, entertained proposals calling for the forcible overthrow of slavery. Frederick Douglass spoke after the Civil War about the importance of the ballot; a century later, so did Martin Luther King – both understanding it as a mechanism of empowerment. Black power, on the other hand, provided the strongest critique of the racism that underlies American democracy, giving black nationalism a militant edge. It exposed the failed promises of American democracy, and therein laid its threat.
Prof. Elizabeth Clark-Lewis commended Joseph's work for its balanced approach to the study of the black power movement. The book rebuts the misconception that the movement was localized in one area and demonstrates that it emerged from the fabric of African-American daily life as black Americans throughout the nation developed new strategies for liberation. While leaders such as Malcolm X struggled on behalf of African Americans at the national level, local leaders carried the movement's goals throughout individual communities. The panelists agreed that any history of black power must look at both its political and cultural sides. Black power was not merely an adjunct to the civil rights movement but instead was part of a complex relationship that the two movements shared, with a full examination of both being necessary to illuminate the continuing influence of black nationalism and black power on issues of race and democracy in the United States.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129