Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Fifty years ago, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker Willie Ricks coined the term "black power." At the time, Ricks was participating in a March Against Fear across Mississippi that had been initiated by James Meredith, the man who in 1962 desegregated the University of Mississippi. New SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael quickly took up and popularized the idea of black power, which became a potent, incendiary and controversial new slogan in the civil rights struggle.
Exactly what the black power slogan meant was left deliberately ambiguous, and activists and political actors appropriated its meaning in many different ways. Leading white politicians at the time, like President Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Robert Kennedy, all disapproved. Time magazine called it a "new racism" that was "almost indistinguishable from the wild-eyed doctrines of the Black Muslims." Even some civil rights movement supporters condemned black power. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People executive secretary Roy Wilkins hysterically labeled it "a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan." Martin Luther King Jr. complained that it was a "slogan without a program." Later, President Richard M. Nixon embraced the term to promote his vision of black economic power.
Today, the black power movement is often taken to mark a shift in emphasis from the earlier civil rights movement in two main ways. First, it eschewed the inter-racialism and racial integration characteristic of the civil rights movement in favor of black separatism and black nationalism. Second, it moved away from a strict adherence to nonviolence to incorporate armed self-defense — although when members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in California insisted on exercising their Second Amendment rights, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan introduced some of the strictest gun control legislation in the country.
Recently, historians have questioned just how sharp a break the black power era represented from the civil rights era. Instead, they have noted that many of the hallmarks of the black power movement in fact built upon longstanding traditions in the African-American struggle for freedom and equality.
The black power movement impacted Arkansas in a number of ways, and a number of its citizens played important roles in its development. The most immediate effect in the state was the demise of SNCC's activities. SNCC had been active in Arkansas since 1962, holding sit-ins in Little Rock before setting up projects in Pine Bluff and other Arkansas Delta towns and cities. In December 1966, as part of its new black power agenda, the national SNCC organization narrowly voted to expel whites. Little Rock Philander Smith College student Worth Long is credited as having cast the decisive vote in favor. Although not the sole reason for the breakup of SNCC in Arkansas, the debates over the role that whites should play within the organization certainly hastened it. Interestingly, these debates were not in fact racially polarized: Both black and white members of SNCC in Arkansas variously embraced and rejected the tenets of black power.
As SNCC left the state, new local organizations, inspired by black power sensibilities, emerged to continue struggles for freedom and equality in their own communities. The often confrontational-sounding names of these new organizations, such as Community Organizations Build Absolute Teamwork (COMBAT) in Cotton Plant and the Council for the Liberation of Blacks (CLOB) in Hot Springs, clearly marked a more militant stance. Black United Youth (BUY) had branches in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Arkadelphia and Benton. BUY president Bobby Brown — the younger brother of Minnijean Brown, one of the Little Rock Nine, and Phyllis Brown, who had operated the telephones in SNCC's Little Rock headquarters — described BUY as "an eyeball to eyeball organization" dedicated to "direct confrontation with white people for making changes." Numerous other local black power groups sprouted like mushrooms across the state.
College campuses proved a fertile ground for black power. In April 1968, black students at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville formed the advocacy group Black Americans for Democracy (BAD). Among other things, BAD was successful at stopping the tune "Dixie" from being played at Razorback games. In December 1969, black students at what is now Southern* Arkansas University in Magnolia formed their own advocacy group, the Black Students Association (BSA), promoting black-oriented events on campus. In May 1970, black students on campus at Arkansas State University created panic when rumors spread that they had invited black militants from Memphis and other areas to campus. Local residents feared that they were going to "burn the town down."
As the ASU episode demonstrates, black power in Arkansas connected with broader regional developments. In 1969, Lance Watson (who went under the alias "Sweet Willie Wine"), the head of the Memphis black power group The Invaders, conducted his own March Against Fear through the Arkansas Delta. Cutting a dashing figure with "a black beret ... a bright scarf, a bush jacket, dark glasses, blue jeans, sandals, mustache, goatee and voodoo head necklace," Watson set off on Aug. 20, 1969, from West Memphis, reaching the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock on Aug. 24. The march culminated with a rally of 250 people. Watson's march was in support of ongoing demonstrations in Forrest City.
Arkansas also had links to nationally recognized figures in the black power movement. Leroy Eldridge Cleaver, born in Wabbaseka (Jefferson County), was a leading figure in the Black Panther Party, serving as its minister of information and head of the international section. His 1968 collection of essays, "Soul on Ice," was a major contribution to the literature of the era. That year, Cleaver led an ill-fated ambush on Oakland, Calif., police officers in which he was wounded. In the same event, 17-year-old Bobby James Hutton, the first recruit of the Black Panther Party and one of its youngest members, who was also from Jefferson County, was killed.
Another Jefferson County man influential in the movement was Pine Bluff's Jeffrey Richardson Donaldson, a black power-inspired artist who co-founded the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA, originally COBRA, the Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). He coined the term "TransAfrican" to describe a black aesthetic dedicated to celebrating African-American and African diaspora history and culture. Donaldson was chair of the Howard University Art Department from 1970 until his retirement in 1998.
A further prominent Arkansan in the movement was James H. Cone, who was born in Fordyce and raised in Bearden. A graduate of Philander Smith College, Cone was the architect of black liberation theology, a theological corollary to the black power movement that promoted a version of Christianity rooted in the African-American experience. His books "Black Theology and Black Power" (1969) and "God of the Oppressed"(1975) are canonical texts. Cone has served as the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1987.
In March 1974, Little Rock hosted the second National Black Political Convention at the downtown DoubleTree Hotel (then known as the Camelot Hotel). The first convention was held in Gary, Ind., in March 1972, and garnered much publicity, producing a "National Black Political Agenda" that included demands for the election of a proportionate number of black representatives to Congress, community control of schools and national health insurance. It also indicated a growing divide between an emerging group of black elected officials and black grassroots community organizers. These divisions increasingly came to the fore at the Little Rock convention. Jesse Jackson, who had played a starring role in Gary, was not invited — although he came to the city anyway. Congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, one of the co-conveners of the Little Rock convention (along with Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary and black poet Amiri Baraka) dropped out at the last minute. Somewhat paradoxically, calls for black unity at the convention only seemed to cause more fractiousness.
Noted black intellectual Harold Cruse wrote about his disappointment at the outcome of the Little Rock convention, calling it a "betrayal of the black militant potential built up in the struggles of the sixties." For those who believed in the power of indigenous black community organizations to forge a new national black political agenda, it was indeed a disappointment. Instead, the emerging group of new black politicians seized the initiative in doing that. By 1974, black power had moved from the streets and into mainstream politics, becoming something different in the process. If the black power movement began in Mississippi, then there is an argument to be made that as a discrete historical era it effectively ended at the second National Black Political Convention in Little Rock.
The black power movement proved a relatively short-lived surge of black militancy, but it had far reaching consequences. The movement acted as a catalyst to speed many of the changes promised by civil rights legislation in the 1960s. The fiery and confrontational rhetoric of its adherents convinced many whites that the more moderate demands of the civil rights movement for social and political equality were not so outlandish after all. As at a national level, Arkansas's black power movement helped to pry open many of the remaining doors closed to full black citizenship in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The ongoing struggle is to keep those doors open and to let everyone in.
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History and director of the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity. This article is an adapted version of Kirk's entry on the "Black Power Movement" in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.*A previous version of this story mistakenly called Southern Arkansas University South Arkansas University.
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