Thursday, March 26, 2009

Black Power: An International Struggle for Human Rights

This was a paper I wrote this year for a history class on The Sixties taught by David Farber. I highly reccommend taking his class if you go to Temple.

During his arrest on June 16, 1966, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Stokely Carmichael declared, “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin' now is Black Power!"i In the 1960s, this assertion of “Black Power” shocked white America. Even with the legal achievements of the Civil Rights movement, middle-class whites were unprepared to face the sad reality of racial inequality in United States. However, the angry and occasionally violent sentiments of the Black Power movement should not have surprised anyone. American foreign policy, through both its triumphs and failures, forced the United States to acknowledge the inconsistencies between its foreign and domestic policies while international class struggle movements paved the way for black resistance within America. Black Power leaders and organizations recognized the importance of these connections with international movements and used them to strengthen their fight for freedom. As Peniel Joseph argues in Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour, the Black Power movement was an “anti-colonial struggle within American borders” but it was part of a greater “struggle being fought around the world.”ii

American foreign policy in World War II served as a catalyst for both the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement. The Nazi’s treatment of the Jews turned a mirror to America’s Jim Crow laws that allowed similar mistreatment of blacks.iii As American foreign policy shifted focus from fascist totalitarianism to communist totalitarianism, the comparisons to America’s injustices continued. The international marketplace of ideas spread concepts of revolution and resistance. As a result, the Black Power movement borrowed ideas from international perspectives. The Black Power movement emerged during an era of revolution within countries from Africa, Asia, and South America. Important leaders like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton read works from international writers including Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Marcus Garvey, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse-Tung to inform their resistance.iv International movements created a global atmosphere that encouraged African-Americans to challenge the United States’ system of hierarchy and oppression.

Leaders in the Black Power movement recognized the connection between class struggles around the world and their own struggle at home for racial justice. They used this common ground to unite against a common enemy. After his departure from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X created the Organization of Afro-American Unity in 1964 to unite Africans against racial oppression across the world arguing, “We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level—the level of human rights.”v He toured African countries including Ghana, Egypt, and Kenya as an international diplomat for the Black Power His visits tapped into a philosophy called Pan-Africanism, a sense of a “global African community,” championed by W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American intellectual turned Ghanaian citizen.vii Stokely Carmichael continued this collective philosophy after Malcolm’s assassination, visiting some of the same leaders Malcolm met on his African trip, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.viii Pan-Africanism not only gave the Black Power and Civil Rights movements a broader mission and empowered black people to assert their own sense of identity domestically but it also created alliances around the globe to pressure the United States to reexamine its racist policies and attitudes.
Blacks could not fight the United States superpower on black unity alone. In order to change the United States, Black Power needed to threaten the white, middle-class American way of life.

Domestically, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale scared Americans by arming the Black Panthers with guns in order to appear “dangerous” to whites. While visually successful, the Black Power movement required an existential threat to Americans. The Cold War had spawned fear in the United States to the point of nuclear Armageddon. The ultimate threat to the United States was communism, which sometimes treated blacks better than American capitalism did. In resistance to the United States, Black Power leaders logically aligned themselves with America’s greatest international ideological foe. Malcolm X met with Fidel Castro in Harlem during his visit to the United Nationsix and later declared Che Guevara “one of the most revolutionary men in this country right now.”x Stokely Carmichael advocated communism and class warfare. He argued that black people and Third World people’s fates were intertwined and that the international struggle needed to “turn into reality the words of Che.”xi

A famous portrait of Che Guevara. Ironically, this is one of the most commericialized images in the world.

The alignment of Black Power leaders with communists and guerillas certainly made the United States pay attention to the movement but this notice did not necessarily change its ways. The United States treated the Black Power movement, as well as the Civil Rights movement, as domestic threats. The United States government tapped phones, arrested activists, and investigated individuals who they considered a threat. Race riots caused “white flight” from major cities across America.xii Black nationalism’s inherent rebelliousness and strong, incisive criticism made it difficult to persuade white America. The Civil Rights movement used mainstream American ideals and familiar language from the Bible, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence to criticize the United States’ failure to live up to its promises.xiii Black separatists refused to pander to the American people and used ideas from philosophies foreign to white America. In this way, the international influences on Black Power made their ideals less palatable for whites and therefore, less successful in creating practical political power for blacks. Although the Black Power movement served as a strong critique of mainstream America, the movement and its prominent leaders failed to create a substantial plan for black nationalism/separatism. International influences exacerbated differences in an already fragmented movement. Disagreements over varying political ideologies, religious philosophies, and pragmatic plans to achieve the Black Power movement’s goals undermined the black unity necessary for success.

While the Black Power movement shocked America more than it persuaded, Black Power remained essential in the encouragement of a strong black identity in America. Although the Civil Rights movement spawned legal successes in the advancement of blacks, the Black Power movement advanced black dignity. International influence is inseparable from the Black Power movement’s achievements because it remains part of the same global anti-colonial struggle. The leaders of the Black Power movement learned from their international allies; rather than speaking to power in conciliatory language, one must speak honestly to the people and the authority regardless of their reaction.

i Joseph, Peniel E., Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour, 142.
ii Ibid., 106.
iii Farber, David, Lecture on Racial Justice, Temple University, Philadelphia, February 9, 2009.
iv Joseph, Peniel E., Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour, 209.
v Ibid., 99-102.
vi Ibid., 106-109.
vii Ibid., 105.
viii Ibid., 106.
ix Ibid., 35.
x Anderson, Jon Lee, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, New York: Grove Press, 1997, 618.
xi Joseph, Peniel E., Waiting ‘Til The Midnight Hour, 193.
xii Ibid., 121.
xiii Farber, David, Lecture on Racial Justice, Temple University, Philadelphia, February 9, 2009.