Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Power Politics: Dr. King’s Surprising Perspective of “Black Power!!!!!”

When one examines the twentieth-century, an era that W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically claimed would be haunted by an unsolvable “color line” issue, it is safe to say that there is no combination of words that frightens white America more than “Black Power!!!!!” In many ways, it is ironic that Black Power politics arrived on the heels of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., repeated calls for black activists to embrace non-violent civil disobedience as a tactic and gradualism as an appropriate pace in regards to the achievement of racial equality.

Without a doubt, angry calls for “Black Power” stoked whites’ omnipresent fears of racial revenge attacks to a disturbing level. In many ways, the alluded to mid-sixties fears of white Americans is an implicit acknowledgment of what they would do had they been exploited, denigrated, and marginalized for nearly four centuries. It is these reasons that Dr. King was so important to the psychological well-being of white America as they believed that he was the only ‘thing’ standing between them and the arrival of a horde of vengeful blood-thirsty blacks who they believed was never far from reverting to their natural state of uncivilized cannibalistic beings.

Despite their public confrontations with Dr. King, white America needed the Civil Rights patriarch to control the “irrational blacks” who could not get comfortably settled into their oppression filled second-class citizenship. This need for King to be totally wedded to integration was so significant that whites used their many media platforms to portray the Civil Rights patriarch in a light that ignored both his evolving political priorities and unusual position regarding “Black Power!”

Despite the psychological disturbance that it will cause Americans of every hue, in the post-March on Washington period, Dr. King did address “Black Power” politics in an unexpected manner.

Considering the unrestricted use of the term “Black Power” by contemporary activists, I feel that it is important to define what it meant during the mid-sixties Black Power era. Below you will find one of the most accurate definitions of “Black Power” from noted scholar Charles V. Hamilton and Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).

Black power is concerned with organizing the rage of black people.…Black power (1) deals with the obviously growing alienation of black people and their distrust of the institutions of this society; (2) works to create new values and to build a new sense of community and of belonging; and (3) works to establish legitimate new institutions that make participants, not recipients, out of a people traditionally excluded from the fundamentally racist processes of this country.[i]

The concept of Black Power rests on a fundamental premise. Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks. By this, we mean group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society. Traditionally, each new ethnic group in this society has found the route to social and political viability through the organization of its own institutions with which to represent its needs within the larger society . . . the American melting pot has not melted. Italians vote for Rubino over O’Brien; Irish for Murphy over Goldberg, etc.[ii]

Not only does this definition remain of significant utility to this very day, but also the political realities that it depicts remain extremely relevant.

Ironically, it is the importance of Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington speech that facilitates most Americans inability to understand that the Civil Rights leader continued his growth as a political strategist until the moment an assassin’s bullet silenced him at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Most are shocked to learn that King had much to say about the rise of Black Power activists who were in possession of a political platform that appeared to be the antithesis of his non-violent civil disobedience pacifism. According to Dr. King,

[t]here is nothing essentially wrong with power. The problem is that in America power is unequally distributed. This has led Negro Americans in the past to seek their goals through love and moral suasion devoid of power and white Americans to seek their goals through power devoid of love and conscience….  [I]t is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.[iii]

In the following quote, Dr. King extended his commentary to the issue of Black Power politics.

{Black Power activists} must use every constructive means to amass economic and political power. This is the kind of legitimated power we need. We must work to build racial pride and refute the notion black is evil and ugly. But this must come through a program, not merely through a slogan…The words ‘black’ and ‘power’ together give the impression that we are talking about black domination rather than black equality.[iv]

Black Power is a call for the pooling of black financial resources to achieve economic security.… Through the pooling of such resources and the development of habits of thrift and techniques of wise investment, the Negro will be doing his share to grapple with his problem of economic deprivation. If Black Power means the development of this kind of strength within the Negro community, then it is a quest for basic, necessary, legitimate power.[v]

Apparently, the historical record paints a Martin Luther King, Jr., that not only continued to grow in the post-March on Washington portion of his public life. An important part of that political transformation is found in his understanding of and embrace of mid-sixties “Black Power” politics. It is Dr. King’s alluded to shifting political priorities that should serve as definitive proof of the need for contemporary activists and black political leaders to study, study, and study some more. Failure to do such means that we are attempting to solve a centuries-old problem with partial information.

[i] Carmichael, Stokely (Kwame Ture), and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power, The Politics of Liberation. pg. 44-45.

[ii] As “Black Power” became such a hot topic within the American activist community, particularly as many whites sought to gain as much information about the concept as possible for their personal safety and sanity, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) became somewhat of the poster-child for the concept.  The shadow of Carmichael has unfortunately blocked out the presence of such lesser known SNCC activists and Black Power theoreticians such as Willie Ricks who have a greater claim to generating the slogan.  However, Carmichael’s analysis of the term “Black Power” is at times so keen that there is little doubt by believers that it is the next logical and correct step for the Black movement.  See., Stokely Carmichael, “SNCC Chairman Talks About Black Power”, New York Review of Books, September 22, 1966.  Carmichael, Stokely (Kwame Ture), and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power, The Politics of Liberation  p. 45; Daily Californian, “What’s Black Power?”, November 1, 1966.

[iii] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? p. 37.

[iv] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? pg. 30-31; Hampton and Fayer, Voices of Freedom, an Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, pg. 284-294.  Oft-forgotten when the issue of Black Power as a slogan is discussed is the influence of Willie Ricks on the entire process.  It was Ricks, not Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) who popularized the term “Black Power” in the modern era.  In fact, even SNCC luminaries such as James Forman give Ricks the credit for such, as does the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., See., James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, p. 456.  Hampton and Fayer, Voices of Freedom, an Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, p. 289-290.

[v] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? p. 38.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race, and Culture, 2017

Dr. James Thomas Jones III is the author of Creating Revolution as They Advance: A Narrative History of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense  (Available at Amazon and wherever great books are sold)

Manhood, Race, and Culture greatly appreciates your participation on this site. We would love to receive your feedback regarding the site. We are dedicated to working toward the uplift of the Race 'by any means necessary' including, but not limited to education.