Introduction to Black Power

Black Student Union spokesman Thomas Jackson, 1969

The black liberation struggle in the United States has remained a dynamic movement since gaining influence in the mid-20th century. Although popular philosophies and strategies have changed and developed over time, the overarching goal of the struggle has remained the same—liberty and justice for all. The Black Power Movement is often remembered as a “wrong turn” from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States’ constructed narrative. Renowned Black Power historian Peniel E. Joseph challenges this popular belief in his book, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America (2006). Rather than a “wrong turn” from Civil Rights activism, Joseph explains that Black Power ideology grew alongside civil rights activism (Joseph, 302). Joseph argues that Black Power is part of a "continuous dialectic of black struggle against racial oppression," rather than the end of a "heroic" civil rights struggle and the "failure" of the Black Power struggle (Joseph, 163). Both Civil Rights and Black Power struggles took up the challenge of winning back black dignity and righting historical wrongs. However, Black Power differs in its channeling of black identity, thus approaching the racial crisis in the United States with a new assertive and bold intensity.

Stokely Carmichael, a rising international Black Power icon, introduced the phrase “Black Power” in 1966 (Joseph, 143). The ideology begins by reimagining the black identity. Joseph explains, "Black Power required the ultimate act of self-definition by a people whose long history of bondage forced them to see themselves, at least partially, through the eyes of the very forces that oppressed them" (Joseph, 199). Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton co-authored a book titled, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, which attempted to define the growing black consciousness. In September of 1968, Hamilton was invited to Dubuque by the “Students for Black Power” to lecture on topics covered in the book. Dubuque’s newspaper, the Telegraph Herald, summarized Hamilton’s lecture. Hamilton explained that “The purpose of black power is to re-establish an identity, a movement of ‘black solidarity,’” and “is an attempt by the black society to find identity for itself outside the white value system because this system is no longer legitimate” (1).

Black Floor Image 1.png
1969 Loras College Purgold

As black Americans began to reimagine and define their own identities, they also began to take incredible pride in their racial heritage. The term “negro” became increasingly associated with acceptance of oppression and the white value system. As racial conscience grew, they began to identify as black, African American, or Afro American (Joseph, 200). "Every Negro is a potential black man," Carmichael stated (Joseph, 225).  Carmichael further explained what it meant to reclaim the black identity, stating, "We have to stop being ashamed of being black. We are not going to fry our hair anymore but they can start wearing their hair to look like us" (Joseph, 152). Likewise, a poster on one Loras student’s door in the late 1960s read “black is beautiful”—a belief that Black Power ideology is built on (2).

The growing racial awareness resulted in a "casually assertive identity and cultural pride that marks African American life today" (Joseph, 305). Black Power is often linked tightly to the creation or perpetuation of violence. However, Black Power activists felt that they could no longer be subjected to white violence without any form of protection. Therefore, Black Power advocates rejected purely non-violent resistance strategies (more commonly associated with the Civil Rights era) and believed they had the right and responsibility to defend themselves if threatened with violence.

Jerry Streff Photo 6.png
Student holding wooden club for self defense during the sit-in at Henion Manor, 1969

Carmichael explained this shift in mentality, stating:

"We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you’re nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out” (Joseph, 163).

Finally, Joseph stresses that Black Power is much more than a redefinition and reclamation of the black identity. When accused of promoting violence and a racist philosophy, Carmichael explained Black Power is to organize politically and to combat racist institutions (Joseph, 144). Joseph expands on this newfound political radicalism, stating that it "promoted self reliance, self defense, Pan-Africanism, internationalism, and cooperation among blacks--and, at times, violence and misogyny" (Joseph, 305). He goes on to argue that activists thought of Black Power as “an effective share of power,” and of white power as “domination or exploitation” (Joseph, 201).

Throughout the late 1960s, black student activism on college campuses across the country was a monumental—though often overlooked—step forward in the black freedom struggle. In her book, The Black Revolution on Campus, Martha Biondi claims that black students combined a widespread feeling of purpose with incredible urgency, which led to an important period of reform in institutions of higher education across the country (Biondi, 1). Black college students turned the phrase “Black Power” into a grassroots movement—becoming bold leaders among their peers, campuses, and communities at large (Biondi, 2).

Black Floor Image 5.png
1969 Loras College Purgold

The black students at Loras and other area colleges were partakers in a nationwide movement. Affirmative action and academic reform would not have been possible without bold local leaders like this (Biondi, 3). But lasting change was not made without a struggle.

Throughout 1968 and 1969, the racial consciousness of black students in Dubuque grew rapidly as they invited speakers, attended lectures, and held meetings to discuss Black Power. After this period of study, Loras’ black students displayed a bold and assertive identity throughout the following years.

In the fall of 1968, Loras’ black students embraced racial unity when they began living together on the fourth floor of Keane hall. They held a clear cultural pride when they fought a discriminatory athletic hair policy that same fall. They were assertive in their newly self-defined identities as they demanded a black culture house and Black Studies Program throughout the following years. Like many black students across the country, Lorasmen refused to accept the harsh consequences they were delt for their actions. This period of “conflict, crackdown, negotiation and reform” is exactly what changed the course of American higher education forever (Biondi, 1).

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the black students at Loras College embodied a truly revolutionary phrase—Black Power.

Click purple resource titles to view online or make an appointment to visit the archive!
Cited Sources
  1. Educator: US Polluted With Racism

  2. Interview with Reverend Eugene Kutsch