What Is Black Power?

The Black Panthers March in New York
The Black Panthers march in protest of the trial of co-founder Huey P. Newton in Oakland, California. Bettmann/Getty Images

The term “Black Power” refers to both a political slogan popularized between the 1960s and the 1980s, and various ideologies aimed at achieving self-determination for black people. It was popularized within the United States, but the slogan, along with components of the Black Power Movement, have traveled abroad.

Origins of Black Power

After the shooting of James Meredith in the March Against Fear, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, influential within the Civil Rights Movement, held a speech on June 16, 1966.

In it, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) declared:

“This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain't going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin' now is Black Power!”

This was the first time Black Power had been used as political slogan. Although the phrase is thought to have originated in Richard Wright’s 1954 book, “Black Power,” it was in Ture’s speech that “Black Power” emerged as a battle cry, an alternative to more tempered slogans like “Freedom Now!” employed by nonviolent groups like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. By 1966, many black people believed that the Civil Rights Movement’s focus on desegregation failed to examine the ways in which America had weakened and humiliated black people for generations — economically, socially, and culturally. Young black people, in particular, had become tired of the Civil Rights Movement’s slow pace.

“Black Power” became symbolic of the new wave of the Black Freedom Struggle that broke from earlier tactics focused on the church and King’s “beloved community.”

Black Power Movement

“...bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary. That's our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary.”

- Malcolm X

The Black Power Movement began in the 1960s and continued throughout the 1980s. While the movement had multiple tactics, from non-violence to proactive defense, its purpose was to bring the ideological developments of Black Power to life. Activists focused on two main tenets: black autonomy and self-determination. The movement began in America, but the simplicity and universality of its slogan allowed it to be applied globally, from Somalia to Great Britain.

The cornerstone of the Black Power Movement was the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Founded in October of 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party was a revolutionary socialist organization. The Panthers were known for their 10-Point Platform, the development of free breakfast programs (which were later taken by the government for the development of WIC), and their insistence on building black people’s ability to defend themselves. The party was heavily targeted by the FBI surveillance program COINTELPro, which led to the death or imprisonment of many black activists.

While the Black Panther Party started with black men as heads of the movement, and continued to struggle with misogynoir throughout its existence, the women in the party were influential and made their voices heard on a number of issues.

Notable activists in the Black Power Movement included Elaine Brown (the first Chairwoman of the Black Panther Party), Angela Davis (leader of the Communist Party USA), and Assata Shakur (member of the Black Liberation Army). All three of these women were targeted by the United States government for their activism. While the Black Power Movement saw a decline in the late 1970s, due to the relentless persecution of those involved (such as Freddy Hampton), it has had a lasting impact on black American arts and culture.

Black Power in the Arts & Culture

"We have to stop being ashamed of being black. A broad nose, thick lip and nappy hair is us and we are going to call that beautiful whether they like it or not.”

- Kwame Ture

Black Power was more than just a political slogan; it introduced a change in overall black culture.

The “Black is Beautiful” movement replaced traditional black styles like suits and permed hair with new, unapologetically black styles, like full afros and the development of “soul”. The Black Arts Movement, founded in part by Amiri Baraka, promoted the autonomy of black people by urging them to create their own journals, magazines and other written publications. Many women writers, such as Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde, contributed to the Black Arts Movement by exploring themes of black womanhood, love, urban struggle and sexuality in their work.

The effects of Black Power as a political slogan, movement, and form of cultural expression lives on in the current Movement For Black Lives. Many of today’s black activists draw on the works and theories of Black Power activists, such as the Black Panther’s 10-Point Platform to organize around ending police brutality.