The Meanings of Black Power: A Comparison of White and Black Interpretations of a Political Slogan

The Meanings of Black Power: A Comparison of White and Black Interpretations of a Political Slogan

By Joel D. Aberbach and Jack L. Walker, The University of Michigan

Angry protests against racial discrimination were a prominent part of American public life during the 1960’s. The decade opened with the sit-ins and freedom rides, continued through Birmingham, Selma, and the March on Washington, and closed with protests in hundreds of American cities, often punctuated by rioting and violence. During this troubled decade the rhetoric of protest became increasingly demanding, blanket charges of pervasive white racism and hostility were more common, and some blacks began to actively discourage whites from participating either in protest demonstrations or civil rights organizations. Nothing better symbolized the changing mood and style of black protest in America than recent changes in the movement’s dominant symbols. Demonstrators who once shouted “freedom” as their rallying cry now were shouting “black power”—a much more provocative, challenging slogan.

The larger and more diverse a political movement’s constituency, the more vague and imprecise its unifying symbols and rallying cries are likely to be. A slogan like black power has no sharply defined meaning; it may excite many different emotions and may motivate individuals to express their loyalty or take action for almost contradictory reasons. As soon as Adam Clayton Powell and Stokely Carmichael began to use the phrase in 1966 it set off an acrimonious debate among black leaders over its true meaning. Initially it was a blunt and threatening battle cry meant to symbolize a break with the past tactics of the civil rights movement.

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