Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic young civil-rights activist, had just been released from a Mississippi jail when he first uttered the cry “Black Power!” It had been his 27th arrest during the long struggle — and his phrase transformed U.S. race relations.
Carmichael’s words, spoken 50 years ago this past Thursday, quickly gripped the national imagination. They served as a racial Rorschach test. Many blacks heard in them a bold call for political self-determination. Many whites feared they would turn into a call for violent retribution.
This new black-consciousness movement swept the nation, much the way young African-American activists now rely on social media, public demonstrations and grassroots organizing. The Black Lives Matter movement, which also recognizes the systemic nature of inequality in American society, echoes Black Power’s stirring call for an end to institutional racism, mass incarceration, violence and war.
Carmichael, an admirer of Malcolm X and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., defined Black Power as the logical outgrowth of civil-rights activism that he believed had run into a brick wall of white-supremacist opposition in the aftermath of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The legislative and legal victories achieved had failed to end all institutional racism, economic inequality and racial violence.
Carmichael’s words ignited a national controversy and helped identify a developing movement, one that had been led by the fallen black radical icon Malcolm X. That movement paralleled civil rights struggles and would flower over the next decade.