The rise, fall and legacy of the Black Power movement, traced from its roots in 1950s Harlem through its explosion and fadeout in the following two decades.
In his well-paced debut, Joseph (Africana Studies/SUNY Stony Brook) gets beyond Black Power symbolism—afros, shades, black-gloved fists raised in the air—to examine the movement’s origins, ideologies and key players. As he tells it, Black Power sprang from the intellectual tumult in northern cities like New York and Detroit, where writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Malcolm X sought to define a new, more assertive African-American identity at the same time that Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches and sit-ins in the South. This new identity, based on black pride and awareness of history, was linked to world events such as the Cuban revolution and Ghanaian independence. As the civil-rights movement won landmark legislative victories, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act, African-Americans split on how to push toward full political and economic equality. In 1966, the young activist Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase “Black Power,” calling for self-sufficiency and distancing himself from King’s nonviolent approach. With the Vietnam war raging and American society in turmoil, race-related violence broke out in dozens of U.S. cities. This mayhem, combined with the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, fueled the rise of the Black Panthers, a militant group eventually done in by the FBI and its own poor leadership. By the 1970s, the movement’s energy had splintered into other efforts, such as abortion rights, women’s rights and school desegregation. Many people today, Joseph writes, associate Black Power solely with gun-toting revolutionaries. He believes it should be recognized for fostering among African-Americans an assertive identity and cultural pride.
Vividly illuminates the personalities and politics of a turbulent time.