“Black Power”, as a term, is most associated with Stokeley Carmichael, the 1960’s civil rights leader. In fact, “Black Power” had been used as a civil rights rallying phrase by Willie Ricks, an SNCC man, before Carmichael used it on the “March Against Fear”. Ricks was so pleased with the response to the phrase that he urged Carmichael to use it in his speeches. However, not even Ricks could have predicted the response of the crowd to the phrase. Each time Carmichael shouted out “What do we want ?”, the reply “Black Power” got louder and louder. After June 1966, the call also was used by militants in anti-white rhetoric.
But what did “Black Power” mean ? From the start of its use, there was confusion.
Some African Americans saw it as a cry against the whites who held all the resources in a white-dominated society. All forms of power, but especially political power, lay with whites. There were some African Americans who wanted to use the call as a way of elevating the status of African Americans in society but then dropping such a potentially inflammatory call once this had started as it would serve no positive purpose after that advance. By initially closing ranks, it was believed that African Americans could advance themselves in American society.
However, there were those who believed that “Black Power” was exactly that. The supporters of this belief wanted no integration with whites whatsoever. They wanted a purely black society in which white people were not allowed to trespass. The whole theory of racial integration was rejected. Stokely Carmichael was a believer in this approach. “Black Power” was seen as a way of resurrecting “Black Pride” and African-American culture. Carmichael said in 1966 :
|“We have to do what every group in this country did – we gotta take over the community where we outnumber people so we can have decent jobs.”
Supporters of “Black Power” as a belief that would keep whites away from blacks, simply did not trust whites. It followed that if whites could not be trusted, then blacks would have to do everything for themselves if they were to control their own political and economic destiny. “If the whites felt abandoned, that was too bad.” (Patterson 1996)
The NAACP condemned “Black Power” as a “menace to peace and prosperity………no negro who is fighting for civil rights can support black power, which is opposed to civil rights and integration.”
Martin Luther King was more diplomatic in his criticism of the phrase. He believed that the term “Black Power” was
|“unfortunate because it tends to give the impression of black nationalism…………black supremacy would be as evil as white supremacy.
Vice-President Hubert Humphrey probably spoke for many Americans, regardless of colour, when he said
|“racism is racism – and there is no room in America for racism of any colour.”