Barack Obama’s meteoric rise from charismatic senator to national phenomenon to presidential contender reveals the complex evolution of black politics since the civil rights and Black Power era. Obama’s candidacy is particularly noteworthy during this primary season and election year, which comes on the fortieth anniversary of 1968, a year when effort to transform American democracy ran headlong into a violent defense of white supremacy. Born in 1961, the same year Freedom Riders faced prison to desegregate interstate travel across the nation, Obama remains aloof to the culture wars—whether based in racial, gender or ethnic solidarity—that remain a cornerstone of the legacy of the 1960s. “I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp,” Obama confessed to Newsweek last summer. “The narrative of black politics is still shaped by the ’60s and black power.” Indeed.
Black Power era radicalism loomed over 1968, a year most often remembered for the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in the spring, followed by the election of Richard Nixon as president in the fall. Urban rebellions—what the media and law enforcement officials referred to as riots—gripped dozens of cities that year, in the sixth straight summer of civil disorders. Radicalized college and high school students staged raucous demonstrations, walkouts and campus takeovers that sent shockwaves through much of the nation.
Black radicals stood at the center of these demonstrations. Advocates of Black Power would ultimately transform American democratic institutions through gritty, often provocative, street demonstrations, campus takeovers and community organizing that challenged entrenched black leadership as much as government officials.
Four decades have passed since King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on Thursday, April 4, 1968. It’s worth remembering how King’s post-’65 push for economic justice, critique against the Vietnam War, and efforts to galvanize the nation’s poor stood, in part, as a response to criticism from black militants.
The years between the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision calling for desegregation and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act are popularly recalled as the heroic period of civil rights struggle. In scholarly and popular histories this era is most often evoked by a collage of images that begins with a black woman holding a newspaper sign announcing the Brown decision; moves to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King being arrested for participating in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama; stops briefly to show federal troops protecting black students in Little Rock, Arkansas; before jumping ahead to dramatic pictures of racial terror in Birmingham that include stark footage of black civil rights demonstrators being attacked by German shepherds and fire hoses. King’s August 1963 March on Washington speech becomes the centerpiece of this newsreel style version of history.
But there is another side to this story that is often left untold, but crucial to understanding contemporary black politics. During the same decade that cast King in the spotlight, black radicals, led by Malcolm X, confronted American democracy’s jagged edges of poverty, police brutality, poor schools, unemployment, and an emerging urban crisis through bruising protests in places such as Harlem, Detroit, and Los Angeles. While critical of the civil rights movement’s focus on desegregating public accommodations and what many considered its overemphasis on the power of the vote, many of these Northern militants drew inspiration from these struggles and simultaneously participated in both movements. Early Black Power radicals, most notably Malcolm X, drew strength and power from the international arena, paying particularly close attention to the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, Ghanaian independence in 1957 and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. When Fidel Castro came to Harlem in 1960, the first leader he met with was Malcolm X. In February of 1961 what several years later would become known as Black Power made its national debut via an organized demonstration at the United Nations in protest against the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In 1966 Stokely Carmichael, a young civil rights organizer who had done impressive work in some of the most dangerous parts of the South, gave name to a pre-existing movement by calling for “Black Power” in the heat of the Mississippi Delta. Black Power would galvanize black radicals, but quickly came under fire—then and now—for advocating what critics argued was a racially separatist philosophy that promoted anti-white feeling, fomented violence, and reeked of sexism. In truth, while certain Black Power activists were guilty as charged, the major strains of the movement represented a far more nuanced and radical critique of American society. Black Power activists harbored a deep cynicism regarding the ability of American democracy to be extended to African Americans. Carmichael’s pursuit of political, economic and cultural power came only after suffering years of physical violence and abuse at the hands or ordinary white citizens while trying to promote voting rights among sharecroppers.
1968 was also the year of the Black Panthers, perhaps the most enduring symbol of Black Power era radicalism. Contemporary mythology surrounding the Panthers focuses on the group’s bravado, flashy clothes, guns, and fiery polemics that advocated an armed confrontation against the state. Less well remembered is the fact that co-founder and minister of defense Huey P. Newton was a college student and an ex-con, a young organizer who cared deeply about the survival of the black community. On this score, the Black Panthers launched a host of “survival programs” during their relatively brief (1966-1982) existence that focused on bread and butter issues, including health care, decent housing, food, clothes and the treatment of prisoners.
The Panthers were, in fact, simply the most spectacular manifestation of the Black Power era’s call for radical democracy. Black college and high school students from New York City to Greensboro, North Carolina out to San Francisco successfully transformed university curriculums and founded Black Studies programs and departments around the nation. Trade unionists in Detroit and other cities attempted to organize workers caucuses to challenge the entrenched racism of white-controlled unions. Led by Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and many others, the Black Arts Movement re-imagined the very contours of blackness through poetry, prose, theater, dance, music and style. Black feminists challenged sexism both in the society and in the Black Power movement itself, arguing for a more inclusive vision of Black Power that promoted a human rights agenda. Welfare mothers from New York City to Las Vegas dreamed of a guaranteed income and, when Dr. King met with them to encourage their participation in the Poor People’s Campaign, they lectured him on the intricacies of public policy. Finally, hundreds of thousands of ordinary local people backed a new generation of black politicians and successfully elected them as mayors of a range of urban cities in the 1960s through the early 1980s, including Cleveland, Gary (Indiana), Newark, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Barack Obama is a direct beneficiary of this rich and varied legacy. As late as Harold Washington’s historic 1983 mayoral victory in Chicago and Jesse Jackson’s robust 1984 presidential campaign, the Black Power legacy infused black political protest, organizing and even electoral politics. Black Power’s impact was of course often blunted by the media’s refusal to acknowledge its continued existence after the mid-1970s. But something happened to black politics in the post-Black Power era, perhaps best exemplified by Jesse Jackson’s own meteoric rise from insurgent outsider to the most recognizable black power broker within Democratic Party circles. Jackson’s route followed a trajectory taken by venerable activists such as Andrew Young, John Lewis and other civil rights veterans who came to define King’s increasingly radical dream as accommodation with powerful white neo-liberals.
Jackson’s endorsement of Obama notwithstanding, the aging civil rights cadre has repudiated Obama because he threatens to cut them out of their cozy deals as intermediaries between the Democratic Party establishment and the black community. But from Black Power’s legacy we have been given Barack Obama, an intelligent, handsome and inspiring politician whose blackness has become a source of his racially transcendent appeal. Yet, when we take a closer look, Obama has all the trappings of a strong, if closeted, race man, complete with a lovely black wife, two beautiful black daughters and membership in a black church that is unabashedly Afrocentric. Until recently, Obama appeared to be more of the leader of a movement than a bona fide presidential candidate. A victory in the Iowa caucuses changed that and the Clinton campaign launched a series of racially coded, but still patently obvious, lines of attack through various proxies that brought up Obama’s substance abuse as a young man, slurred his anti-war record as a “fairy-tale,” and impugned Dr. King’s legacy by asserting that it took Lyndon Johnson to actually pass civil rights legislation. These attacks have successfully served the Clintons’ Machiavellian purposes: to out Barack Obama as a black candidate. They are also reminiscent, in their own way, of the worst kind of racial pandering engaged in by the Democratic Party’s southern wing during the post-Reconstruction era. While certainly not as blatant as Alabama governor George Wallace’s infamous “segregation then, segregation now and segregation forever” statement, the impact of the Clinton campaign’s racial politicking is similar: it casts racial difference as un-American, subversive, and a threat to the very foundations of the nation’s democracy. But, even as it successfully positions Hillary Clinton to win the party’s nomination, this strategy may have crippling long-term repercussions. As black Americans become increasingly aware of the Clinton campaign’s ugly efforts to racially swift boat Obama’s candidacy, there could be a backlash among African American voters come November.
By playing the race card, the Clintons have successfully pivoted the Democratic primary away from substantive political issues (e.g., the war in Iraq) and turned it into a debate over which oppressed group (blacks or women) deserves the nomination. Gloria Steinem’s New York Times op-ed piece, published in the aftermath of Clinton’s loss in Iowa, set the tone for this storyline, arguing that black men had received the right to vote fifty years before white women while conveniently ignoring that most blacks could not exercise that right until 1965 because of racial apartheid in the South. Predictably, as attacks by prominent white politicians and ex-president Bill Clinton on Obama mount, the black community has rallied with the latent sense of nationalism that is always bubbling beneath the surface. For all intents and purposes, Obama has now been outed as a black candidate, the very moniker his entire campaign had successfully avoided. By promoting a robust version of the American Dream, albeit in Technicolor, Obama’s campaign had heretofore avoided that perception.
This need not be the political Achilles heel that many might imagine. After all, contrary to popular opinion, the Black Power Movement fought for bread and butter issues that made an impact on the lives of all Americans, including good public schools, decent housing, healthcare and gainful employment. While activists looked for racially specific solutions to problems rooted in slavery, a variety of multi-ethnic and racial groups looked to the movement as a broad template for social and political justice goals. In this sense, contemporary discussion of multiculturalism and diversity are rooted in the radically democratic ethos of the Black Power era. Obama has recently come under attack for comments suggesting that Ronald Reagan’s presidency reflected a deeper more substantive change in America than Nixon or Clinton. I absolutely concur, even as I vehemently object to the Reagan era’s acceleration of black poverty, incarceration and misery. Reagan’s presidency in many ways represented a counter-revolution to the search for “land, peace, bread, and justice” advocated by the Black Panthers. Obama’s legacy is still unfolding before our eyes. Ironically, the key to achieving the broad, racially transcendent impact that his soaring rhetoric aspires towards may lie in lessons taught by a Black Power Movement whose legacy Obama is unlikely to ever publicly claim.
ContributorPeniel E. Joseph
Peniel E. Joseph is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. He is the author of the award-winning Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (Holt, 2006) and editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (Routledge, 2006). A native New Yorker (and former Brooklyn resident), he is writing a biography of activist Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael).