The Black Power Puzzle
Reexamining the legacy of the post–civil rights era
Dark Days, Bright Nights:
From Black Power to Barack Obama
by Peniel E. Joseph
Basic Civitas Books
$26.00 List Price
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,