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ISR Issue 53, May–June 2007

The struggle for Black Power

Judson L. Jeffries, ed.
University of Illinois Press, 2006
336 pages $25


THE GENERATION of activists in the Black Power movement from the mid-1960s into the 1970s was convinced that Black liberation was not merely a theoretical possibility. It was an immediate reality, achievable through the organization of Black people fighting on every front for their emancipation. Even if they had conflicting ideas about what specific actions or ideas it would take to win, advocates of Black Power became some of America’s most dedicated and courageous activists in the struggle against racism.

Black Power in the Belly of the Beast, a collection of essays edited by Judson L. Jeffries, displays the patchwork of political organizations and ideologies that made up the movement. The authors detail the inner workings of widely diverse Black Power organizations. Komozi Woodard, in his chapter on the Newark Congress of African People, astutely sets the stage for this explosion of Black militancy by quoting Harry Haywood, a former Communist Party member who took up Maoism in the 1960s:

Black Power became the rallying cry of the uprisings because it summed up the main lessons learned by the masses during the civil rights phase of the movement; legal rights meant nothing without the political power to enforce them. Black Power expressed the growing consciousness of the Afro-American masses that they are an oppressed nation whose road to freedom and equality lies through taking political power into their own hands.

Agreement, however, was never reached about how this power would be achieved. As Ahmed Shawki remarks in his book Black Liberation and Socialism,
The Black Power slogan became the springboard for both a move to the left and a move to the right. Four interconnected interpretations of Black Power emerged: (i) as Black capitalism, (ii) as Black electoral power, (iii) as cultural nationalism, and (iv) as radical Black nationalism.

The chapter on Maulana Ron Karenga’s US Organization illustrates one of these major divides as a contest over ideas, which escalated into a shootout with the Black Panther Party. Karenga insisted on the primacy of reclaiming African identity, while the Panthers emphasized political struggle for a socialist society.

A chapter on the Deacons for Defense and Justice details how an armed Black self-defense organization, whose backbone was made up of Black veterans of the Second World War, emerged as the unofficial guardian of the nonviolent civil rights movement. One account recalls a debate among civil rights leaders over whether the Deacons should be called on to defend the “March for Freedom” in Mississippi. A young Kwame Ture (then Stokely Carmichael) argued in favor of the Deacons’ support, and Martin Luther King Jr. remained “largely silent throughout the long and contentious discussion.”

Ture’s side won the argument. The Deacons were propelled into the national spotlight through their armed presence at the march. During the march Carmichael introduced the term “Black Power” in a speech at Indianola, the birthplace of the White Citizens’ Council.

The Defenders, similar to the Deacons, were made up of Black veterans living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. With hundreds of peripheral members, a core of one hundred organized along the lines of a military combat unit. By driving out the Ku Klux Klan through armed confrontation, this group buried the stereotype of African Americans as docile and deathly afraid of the police and the Klan.
The Sons of Watts came to embody a conservative definition of Black Power. Formed in the aftermath of the Watts uprising in 1965, they “announced they would engage in social actions directed at community improvement” to make up for the government’s failure to rebuild the city. The Sons led a clean-up effort and went on to perform a variety of civic duties such as serving as crossing guards and hosting community festivals. From there, the Sons moved rightward, refusing to defend a ghetto rebellion in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point neighborhood—and later taking directives from the sheriff’s department to oppose the opening of a communist book store.

The chapter on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers is a useful supplement to the seminal Detroit I Do Mind Dying through its account of hundreds of workers who sought to bring Marxist principles of workers’ power to auto assembly lines. Jeffries and James Geschwender note that the League operated with the confidence that revolution could come soon:

In keeping with the league’s program, the organization’s short-range objective was to secure state power with the control of the means of production in the hands of the workers under the leadership of the most advanced section of the working class, the Black working class vanguard. The group’s long-range objective was to create a society free of race, sex, class, and national oppression, founded on the humanitarian principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

The Black Liberation Army, in contrast, favored a Maoist strategy of urban guerrilla warfare and performed hits on police in New York City and elsewhere.

As Jeffries describes in the book’s conclusion, Black capitalism and electoral strategies came to a prominent position in the movement, reinforced by none other than Richard Nixon, who explained, “I have made the point that to foster the economic status and the pride of members of our minority groups, we must seek to involve them more fully in our private enterprise system.” Interpreting Black Power as the advancement of an elite Black class, figures such as Roy Innis and Floyd McKissick, both one-time leaders of the Congress of Racial Equality, became proponents of Black capitalism.

Jeffries argues that while the Black Power movement had political weaknesses and ultimately wasn’t sufficient to end the institutions of racism, it had many successes that should be celebrated as victories in the long struggle for equality. From influencing Black soldiers to rebel against the U.S. Army in Vietnam, to the creation of Black studies programs at universities, to chasing the Klan from some of the haunts of power, the movement is a testament to the ability of ordinary people to fight for their liberation.

While readers of the ISR may disagree with some of the conclusions about the politics of the various groups or with the explanations of why the Black Power movement was unsuccessful in its ultimate aims, Black Power in the Belly of the Beast provides essential history for anti-racist activists to understand the complexities of the movements that have come before us and to aid us in building the struggles against racism today.

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