From power to protest, things certainly have changed since the 1960's. An examination of the Black Power Movement and it's presence (or lack thereof) in today's society.
Raised fists; afros, rounded and stiff; determined rhetoric filling the air; streets swathed by marchers and demonstrators; leaders donning black berets, black turtle-neck tops and black leather jackets - arming themselves when necessary! Seriousness. Fear. Power – Black Power! In 1960s America, it was a force to be reckoned with; a sense of unity was in the air. The entire nation had to be mindful, and the whole world took note. It was in the music as James Brown sung ‘Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’ In the same vein, Olympic medalists were raising their fists on the champion’s podium, and the world’s greatest boxer of the day, changed his name to Muhammad Ali. African countries were achieving independence domino-style, and Britain’s newly arrived Black immigrants, from the Caribbean, were finding their voice. An ideology was spreading, and continents across the world were being touched.
New to the status of leading super power, expectations within America seemed to have heightened. Nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery, Blacks had completely tired of waiting for equal rights: an immediate end to culturally entrenched segregationist practises in the South was sought. Segregated schools, buses, water fountains and parks, and oftentimes deprived of their right to vote: these racist policies affected young and old, and had permeated every aspect of life. The injustice of having to wait any longer for equality had brought America’s Black community to crisis point. Through the non-violent leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., boulders fortifying its racist institutions had begun to be rolled away.
But these pacifists proved ultimately unable to articulate the pains of their counterparts in the North. Though segregation, the crux of the Southern protest, was unlawful in the North, despite their obvious support, many urbanites were left feeling alienated. Their own problems of inequalities in housing and industry, and a general sense of disempowerment brought on by the experience of everyday injustices, seemed unattended to. It was this void that led to the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s.
This phenomenon was new. And it was quite unlike any shouts for White Power, which invariably proclaims superiority over other races, intellectually, spiritually, naturally! The term ‘Black Power’ was first used by the 1950s activist Robert F. Williams, and the words of Stokely Carmichael, one of the movement’s most pre-eminent leaders, defines its meaning clearly: ‘Black Power…calls for Black people to consolidate behind their own, so that they can bargain from a position of strength.’ It also encouraged a concept of natural Black beauty, and sought to nurture a pride in African heritage. This was nothing to do with racial supremacy!
Conditions for the rise of Black Power were ripe. Black celebrities were straightening their hair, seemingly emulating White counterparts, whilst going through back doors for the privilege to entertain White audiences. City Blacks were living in slums, forced to do only menial jobs, deprived of any decision-making posts, and the vote. This was all happening despite the fact that Blacks had fought in the American Civil War and the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement had got the ball rolling: the Nation of Islam, another prominent voice of the day, showed that Blacks had the ability to organize and have presence; the intellect and poignant oratory of Malcolm X inspired; the SNCC and the Black Panther Party, leading Black Power organizations, had struck a chord within the Black community. And this leadership seemed fearless, as they made demands which were heard beyond corked ears. These resounded well into the 1970s and across seas, when their mantra could be seen to be supported by a huge Rastafarian presence among Britain’s Black Youth. But by the 1980s, their resonance was becoming increasingly faint. So exactly what had changed?
In a piece on Black Power and Black nationalism, essayist Mike Miller says this about its downfall: “Black Power took on a rhetorical tone that was not intrinsic to the idea. The shrillness of the times was amplified by media exaggerations and distortions. I think people were so exhausted, battle-fatigued, that they lost the revolutionary patience – the recognition that there is no justice without struggle and that the struggle will be a long one.”
He goes on to express the way in which the movement’s inexperience led to difficulties in its efforts to dismantle the racist structures that they fought. He also blames in-house disunity over such issues as integration, assimilation and Black separatism, in a setting of outside hostility, where opponents of the movement focused on its rhetoric more than its substance – attempting to frighten more moderate minds. Given this context, the inability to create mechanisms that encouraged consensus and compromise did not augur well for the movement.
Perhaps it is true that we humans tire of fighting, that after a heavy campaign we get to the point where if we gain a good enough semblance of our objective, we end up settling with that. This is not to attempt to diminish anything that has been achieved, by any means. By the end of an era, Black people had the right to vote, policies on affirmative action and quotas were being implemented, and there was a much greater sense of equality in education, housing and employment. These achievements showed ability at negotiating with business executives, unionists, public sector administrators and politicians. And the combined efforts of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements worked to destabilize the foundations of the wall standing between Blacks and equal opportunities.
So let’s come back to where we are, here in Britain. When we look within the Black community today, is it fair comment to say there is nothing going on, that Blacks are rudderless, wandering and pining for leaders reminiscent of those from times past? The charge is that there is an absence of rhetoric, organizations and mobilizations. So then, it is apt for us to ask what it is that gives rise to these elements? Search the annals of human experience, and we will invariably find that crisis is the factor that precedes them. Our next question must then be, is Britain’s Black community currently in a condition that can be said to constitute a crisis? Let’s see.
Blacks have the greatest proportion of single parent families and numbers of children in foster care. The highest school exclusion rates rest with Black children, as do the most disparaging figures about under-achievement. Just this week, The Voice newspaper reports that, “40% of people detained in psychiatric wards are Black.” Just last week, yet another Black man seems to have fallen prey to the vicious claws of police brutality when he was mysteriously shot dead after leaving a restaurant in West London’s Park Royal. Young Black men are killing other young Black men more than any other nation of young Black men. If all this does not constitute a crisis, then the word ‘crisis’ needs to be re-defined!
Despite these facts, any rhetoric that shakes the nation as it articulates this crisis and a need for solutions to be found is conspicuous by its absence. In terms of organization and mobilization, however, there are those that are trying: 100 Black Men and Boyhood To Manhood are both trying to educate and train the Black youth, and keep them from suffering dire disenchantment; The London Youth Forum is attempting to redirect and ‘save’ volatile gang members; supplementary schools and community courses teaching Black history proliferate; Policy Advisor Lee Jasper has recently made pleas for Black businesses to unite, and be given opportunities to gain access to contracts being distributed by the GLA; The Voice Newspaper is highlighting Black business leaders, and urging readers to nominate and vote for the one they deem most effective. There’s even more being done; the list is endless! There is also evidence of Black people being mobilized: marches, meetings and screenings, all dealing with Black issues, take place quite regularly. But though many are well-supported, do they occur en masse? And, most importantly, can all this be said to comprise a Black Power Movement?
Though within all of these factions lies a common cause, which is to uplift the experience of Black people, each is atomized. The sense of cohesion needed to bestow a movement with presence is lacking. And whilst it is that everyone just does their own thing, there will continue to be incidents that create a wave reaction, but then we will watch as the wave subsides to a mere ripple, as people move on to get on with their lives. When, in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to get to the back of that Montgomery bus, defiance firmly planted on her lap, people mobilized behind her. Her action sparked the Civil Rights Movement. How many Black on Black killings have there been, in London alone, so far this year? Yet, sadly, Black communities seem to have responded with what appears to have been an immediate horror that’s developed little beyond initial.
So what is it that stops Black people from feeling affected by tragic experiences that could so easily be their own? Perhaps there is something about the relative affluence of our society that supports this atomization. There was once a time when ordinary people didn’t have, and couldn’t get, what the wealthy had. Now, however, it’s simply a case of them having different degrees or amounts of what the rich have. As much as they may suffer in the process of getting it, in terms of hardships they are prepared to endure and the lengths some are willing to go to, there is something about this day and age that makes it seem possible. Here in the West, the ordinary often have very sophisticated mod cons, quite lush homes – rented or bought, and even holidays abroad much more than ever before. Maybe this affects one's attitude to the concept of ‘the struggle’; however much the ‘common people’ are suffering, perhaps they have enough not to feel any real urge to fight together to achieve their ideals. So is what we’re seeing evidence of the ‘battle fatigue’ spoken about in the essay by Mike Miller? Possibly, this semblance of ‘all being accessible to all’ keeps communities in a state of comatose. Is this one of ‘the system’s’ more modern ploys to keep people in their place?
I wonder if it would help for the Black press to get together and organize a formalized catalogue of ‘Black grievances’! To go alongside each could be the details of an organization that was trying to address it. In this way, Black people could see just how many grievances there actually are, and engender a more real sense of the crisis, and the need to mobilize behind these currently atomized organizations. Perhaps then, they would develop an understanding that organization without mobilization brings little power to any crisis situation. Perhaps then a united focus could be found - they could then walk together, hand in hand, in their attempts to make a shared vision a reality. This would be Black Power!
1st June 2007