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Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker Willie Ricks coined the “black power” slogan in June 1966 during the March Against Fear in Mississippi. The term was subsequently popularized by national SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael. Those who used the slogan often left its precise meaning deliberately ambiguous. In general terms, the black power movement is usually taken to mark a shift in emphasis from the earlier civil rights movement by advocating black separatism and black nationalism over inter-racialism and racial integration, and by advocating armed black self-defense over a strict adherence to nonviolence. More recently, historians have questioned just how dramatic 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 built on longstanding traditions in the ongoing African-American struggle for freedom and equality.
Arkansas experienced the black power movement in a number of different ways. Its most immediate impact was the end of SNCC in the state. SNCC had been active in Arkansas since 1962, holding sit-ins in Little Rock (Pulaski County) before setting up projects in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) and other Arkansas Delta communities. In December 1966, as part of its newly articulated black power agenda, the national SNCC organization narrowly voted to expel whites from the organization. Although not the sole reason for the demise of SNCC in Arkansas, the debates over the role that whites should play within the organization certainly hastened it. Interestingly, these debates were not necessarily 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 (Woodruff County) and the Council for the Liberation of Blacks (CLOB) in Hot Springs (Garland County), clearly marked a more militant stance. Black United Youth (BUY) had branches in Little Rock, North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Arkadelphia (Clark County), and Benton (Saline County). 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 groups sprouted like mushrooms across the state.
College campuses proved a fertile ground for black power. In April 1966, black students at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) 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 (SAU) in Magnolia (Columbia County) formed their own advocacy group, the Black Students Association (BSA), promoting black-oriented events on campus; it was a successor to the short-lived Students United for Rights and Equality (SURE). In May 1970, black students on campus at Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County) created a panic when rumors spread that they had invited black militants from Memphis, Tennessee, and other areas to campus. Residents feared that these militants would “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 of “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 August 20, 1969, from West Memphis (Crittenden County), reaching the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock on August 24; the march culminated with a rally of 250 people. Watson’s march was in support of ongoing demonstrations and added fuel to racial conflict in Forrest City (St. Francis County).
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. The same year, Cleaver led an ill-fated ambush on Oakland, California, police officers in which he was wounded. In the same event, seventeen-year-old Bobby James Hutton, the first recruit of the Black Panther Party and one of its youngest members (and who was also from Jefferson County), was killed.
Yet another Jefferson County man influential in the movement was Pine Bluff’s Jeffery 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). He coined the term “TransAfrican” to describe a black aesthetic dedicated to celebrating African-American and African Diaspora history and culture. He was chair of the Howard University Art Department from 1970 until his retirement in 1998.
Another figure in the movement was James H. Cone, who was born in Fordyce (Dallas County) and raised in Bearden (Ouachita County). A graduate of Philander Smith College, he was the architect of black liberation theology, a theological corollary to black power that promoted a version of Christianity rooted in the black experience of struggles for freedom and equality. His books Black Theology and Black Power (1969) and God of the Oppressed (1975) are canonical texts. Cone became the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in 1987.
In March 1974, Little Rock hosted the second National Black Political Convention. The first convention was held in Gary, Indiana, 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 a newly emerging group of black elected officials and black grassroots community organizers. These divisions increasingly came to the fore at the Little Rock convention. National civil rights leader 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, Michigan, one of the co-conveners of the Little Rock convention (along with Mayor Richard Hatcher of Gary and 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 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. It was instead the emerging group of new black politicians that largely seized the initiative in doing that. Black power had moved from the streets and into mainstream politics, becoming something different in the process. If the discrete historical movement known as black power began in Mississippi, there is an argument to be made that it effectively ended in Little Rock in 1974.
For additional information:
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in Black America. New York, Random House, 1967.
Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Chapell, David L. Waking From the Dream: The Struggle for Civil Rights in the Shadow of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Random House, 2014.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. rev. ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
———. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1975.
Cruse, Harold W. “The Little Rock National Black Political Convention.” Black World 23 (October 1974): 10–17.
Deaderick, Michael R. “Racial Conflict in Forrest City: The Trial and Triumph of Moderation in an Arkansas Delta Town.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 69 (Spring 2010): 1–27.
Donaldson, Jeff R. “Africobra Manifesto? ‘Ten in Search of a Nation.’” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art 30 (Spring 2012): 76–83.
———. “The Rise, Fall and Legacy of the Wall of Respect Movement.” International Review of African American Art 15.1 (1991): 22–26.
Goudsouzian, Aram. Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
Joseph, Peniel E. The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. New York: Routledge, 2006.
———. Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of the Black Power Movement in America. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.
Kirk, John A. “An ‘Eyeball-to-Eyeball Kind of Organization’: Black United Youth and the Black Power Movement in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 75 (Autumn 2016): 206–238.
———. Redefining the Color Line: Black Activism in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1940–1970. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.
Morgan, Gordon G., and Izola Preston. The Edge of Campus: A Journal of the Black Experience at the University of Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1990.
Seale, Bobby. Seize the Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party and Huey P. Newton. New York: Random House, 1968.
Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. “Replicating History in a Bad Way? White Activists and Black Power in SNCC’s Arkansas Project.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 67 (Autumn 2008): 268–287.
Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, and John A. Kirk. Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011.
Wright, C. D. One with Others. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2010.
John A. Kirk
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Last Updated 5/17/2017
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