A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power

Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America

by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton
Random House, 185 pp., $4.95

Black Power and Urban Unrest

by Nathan Wright Jr.
Hawthorn, 195 pp., $4.95

Black Power/White Resistance: Notes on the New Civil War

by Fred Powledge
World, 282 pp., $6.95

White Reflections on Black Power

by Charles E. Fager
William B. Eerdmans, 108 pp., (paperback $1.65) (paper)

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

by Harold Cruse
Morrow, 568 pp., $8.95
Elijah Muhammad
Elijah Muhammad; drawing by David Levine

In the place of a matured social vision there will always be those who will gladly substitute the catastrophic and glorious act of martyrdom and self-immolation for a cause.”
—Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual

Whatever else “Black Power” means, the slogan itself indicates that the movement for racial equality has entered a new phase. Even those who argue that the change is largely rhetorical or that Black Power merely complements the struggle for “civil rights” would presumably not deny that “Black Power” articulates, at the very least, a new sense of urgency, if not a sense of impending crisis. Together with last summer’s riots, it challenges the belief, until recently widespread, that the United States is making substantial progress toward racial justice and that it is only a matter of time and further effort before the color line is effectively obliterated.

Now even the opponents of Black Power issue warnings of apocalypse. “We shall overcome” no longer expresses the spirit of the struggle. Race war seems a more likely prospect. The Negro movement itself is splitting along racial lines. In the form in which it existed until 1963 or 1964, the civil rights movement is dead: this is not a conjecture but a historical fact. Whether the movement can be revived in some other form, or whether it will give way to something completely different, remains to be seen. Meanwhile time seems to be working on the side of an imminent disaster.

What has changed? Why did the civil rights movement, which seemed so confident and successful at the time of the Washington march in 1963, falter until now it seems to have reached the point of collapse? Why has “Black Power” displaced “freedom” as the rallying- point of Negro militancy?

There are several reasons for this change. The most obvious is that the apparent victories of the civil rights coalition have not brought about any discernible changes in the lives of most Negroes, at least not in the North. Virtually all the recent books and articles on Black Power acknowledge this failure or insist on it, depending on the point of view. Charles E. Fager’s White Reflections on Black Power, for example, analyzes in detail the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the major legislative achievement of the civil rights coalition—and shows how the act has been systematically subverted in the South, title by title, and how, in the North, many of its provisions (such as voting safeguards and desegregation of public accommodations) were irrelevant to begin with. The inadequacy of civil rights legislation is not difficult to grasp. Even the most superficial accounts of the summer’s riots see the connection between hopes raised by civil rights agitation and the Negroes’ disappointing realization that this agitation, whatever its apparent successes, has nevertheless failed to relieve the tangible miseries of ghetto life.

NOT ONLY HAVE the civil…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.