Feb/Mar 2010

The Black Power Puzzle

Reexamining the legacy of the post–civil rights era

Clay Risen


It's one of the most famous photos from 1968, a year full of them: two African-American athletes on the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics, their heads bowed, their fists gloved and raised in the Black Power salute. The International Olympic Committee called it "a deliberate and violent breach" of the games' spirit, but the athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, remained unflappable. They did it out of respect, they said, for the memory of Malcolm X—and of Martin Luther King Jr.

Really? King and Malcolm are supposed to represent the polar opposites of black activism. What did King have to do with Black Power? In the media's telling, at least, King was the Abel to Malcolm's Cain, the virtuous preacher brought low as much by "black racists" as by a white supremacist's bullet. And yet for people like Carlos and Smith, racially conscious if not especially political, the similarities outweighed the differences. King and Malcolm both fought, and died, for black rights. Both spoke eloquently, and forcefully, for the common man. The NAACP and the New York Times editorial page may have seen a stark difference between civil rights and Black Power, but most black Americans didn't.

For a long time, that dichotomy held true in historical accounts of the civil rights struggle as well. Since the days of John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward, the closely related fields of southern and civil rights history have been marked by an undercurrent of political activism. Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom (1947) and Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) are valuable scholarship, but they make no bones about their agenda, namely, to provide intellectual ballast to the fight for racial equality. That same impulse underlies the shelf of King biographies published in the past thirty years—excellent books, for the most part, but guided by an urge to cement King's place in the American pantheon. It's a tribute to such writers as Taylor Branch and David Garrow that today King is universally admired; this was not always the case, even in the civil rights community. Conservatives once scoffed at King's legacy. Now they, too, struggle to claim him as their own.

Over time, this laserlike focus has yielded a narrow reading of the fight for racial equality. King, the South, nonviolence, and the "heroic era"—i.e., 1955 to 1965dominate the narrative, while Malcolm, the North, Black Power, and the decades before and after King's apogee are neglected. To date, there is not a single serious biography of Malcolm, Stokely Carmichael, or any of the dozens of black leaders who fell outside King's circle. Carlos and Smith could resolve the tension between King and Malcolm, but historians have had a much harder time.

That bifurcated narrative is changing, though, and Barack Obama's election, said by some to be the "end" of the civil rights movement, will certainly hurry the process along. His occupation of the White House has given scholars an opportunity to flood the market with new takes on black history—making the years between the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1965 Voting Rights Act just one chapter in a long and multifaceted narrative.

Few scholars have pursued this line of inquiry as aggressively as Oxford University historian Stephen Tuck does in his new book, We Ain't What We Ought to Be. As early as page 1, Tuck declares that the King-led, southern civil rights movement "was not the climax of protest, nor even the prototype of African-American protest in the United States. Rather, the struggle for full racial equality was fought—and needed to be fought—in many different ways and in all regions and in every generation from emancipation."

With that aim in mind, Tuck is less preoccupied with proving an argument than with disproving the easy assumptions about a unified black culture and experience during the battle against segregation. That struggle, he shows, is not just about religious leaders engaged in nonviolent campaigns in the South for integration and civil rights; rather, secularism, localism, violence (or at least what we might call non-nonviolence), separatism, and economic rights were important themes in movements across the country. Along the way, Tuck takes a cleaver to a herd of sacred cows: Reconstruction didn't do all that much for rural southern blacks; the Harlem Renaissance had only a limited influence on black culture and politics; the heroic civil rights movement wasn't monolithic and wasn't always nonviolent; the Jim Crow South wasn't always a racial nightmare, nor was the North a racial Eden.

In this vein, Tuck follows the lead of Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty (2008), a thorough history of the northern civil rights struggle. Indeed, Tuck relies on secondary sources; there's little original research here. But then, that's not the point: We Ain't What We Ought to Be is an astounding exercise in synthesis, bringing together the past decade of research on the African-American experience. To scholars of southern and black history, what Tuck calls "revelations" will be anything but. However, most Americans are still under the spell of the genre's first generation, with its neat divisions between North and South, violent and nonviolent, and civil rights and Black Power. Tuck's book could change that.

To get a sense of just how quickly revisionism has moved to the center of black historiography, consider the career of Peniel E. Joseph. Just a few years ago, Joseph, a young scholar of the Black Power movement, was an assistant professor at SUNY, Stony Brook, laboring in the Africana Studies Department. Today, via a quick stop at Brandeis, he is a full professor of history at Tufts. (I have edited Joseph at my journal, Democracy, and he provided a blurb for my book.) Likewise, the Black Power movement, which many scholars have regarded as a radical byway in the narrative of African-American equality, has now hit the mainstream.

Joseph isn't the only scholar reappraising Black Power—others include Devin Fergus and Hasan Jeffries—but he is easily the most visible. His 2006 book, Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour, was the first comprehensive effort to place Black Power within the full context of the black freedom struggle. Joseph not only explained the importance of Malcolm and Carmichael but also connected their work in the 1960s with the long march of black radical thought, going back to W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey. Now, in Dark Days, Bright Nights, he attempts to take that history forward, to Obama. It doesn't have quite the epic sweep or intellectual nuance of his previous work, and the first three chapters more or less re-iterate arguments made in Waiting. Though these pages are key to fleshing out the new book's final chapter, readers should take the time to peruse the older volume.

Joseph breaks important ground, however, in his concluding dissection of Obama and his unacknowledged debt to Malcolm and Carmichael. In Joseph's reading, Obama is less the beginning of a new day than the dusk of an old one. "For Obama," he writes, "Black Power represents a kind of racial anachronism incapable of confronting the complex and messy realities of America's multicultural present." But Joseph argues that Obama is actually the anachronism here. While as a community organizer he directly benefited from the localized empowerment programs engendered by Black Power in the 1960s and '70s, Obama retains a dualistic view of the black freedom movement, lauding King and condemning Carmichael. He is often too willing to give white America a pass, "blam[ing] both sides equally for a predicament that blacks have largely had no part in creating."

To be fair, Obama is a politician, not a historian—as Joseph readily concedes, in finally coming down on the president's side. Obama, he concludes, is a palimpsest for unresolved tensions within the black community, as well as those between black and white America, unleashing "profoundly personal and political emotions in the national body politic." Obama is not the "end" of anything, Joseph insists; he is, rather, the vehicle taking the nation to the next point in its racial conversation.

This is not quite historiography; it's more in the vein of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, bringing historical research directly to bear on contemporary political commentary. And yet Dark Days shows why black history is still so relevant. Joseph's cultural narrative dovetails with the disastrous political and economic history of the past forty years that Tuck covers in his final chapter, taking readers on a roller coaster of welfare cuts, deindustrialization, and the crack and aids epidemics, reversed at times by dramatic black electoral successes and the astounding array of urban grassroots organizations, all of which demonstrate the need and desire for progress and change in black America. As Joseph and Tuck's work shows, historians are doing their part as well.

Clay Risen is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination (Wiley, 2009).

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