In 1966, Civil Rights activist Willie Ricks convinced Stokely Carmichael — dubbed “Starmichael” by some — to use the slogan “Black Power” at a speech Carmichael gave in Greenwood, Mississippi after being jailed for defying a town decision to prevent activists from camping on public property during the James Meredith March Against Fear. Black Power — a cry that would inspire urban Black youth in cities like Oakland (where the Black Panthers for Self-Defense emerged that same year as gun-toting, beret-wearing radicals) in ways that previous slogans, such as ‘freedom now,’ simply had not. Over the course of the year, as Mark Whitaker shows in his excellent book, “Saying It Loud: 1966 — The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement,” Carmichael’s slogan motivated a new generation of Black youth all across the nation as well as activists fighting for racial, religious, or ethnic justice abroad.
Whitaker, formerly the editor of Newsweek, offers fresh interpretations of key moments of activism during 1966 based on interviews and memoirs published over the past four decades. Without sacrificing historical rigor, he writes with the eye of a journalist and ear of a poet about the behind-the-scenes negotiations and inner-organizational strife among Civil Rights activists who realized the need to broaden the movement beyond the southern campaign for voting rights and desegregation.
In writing about dissent within the activist movement — the battle over white participation within Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, or Carmichael’s ruckus behavior at meetings with older movement leaders like the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins — Whitaker is careful to note that the movement itself, far from being monolithic, had always wrestled with differences of ideology beyond just “freedom now.” Young activists like Carmichael had been inspired by Black Nationalists like Malcolm X and Robert F. Williams, who espoused the central tenets of Black Power prior to 1966. And the term “Black Power” was not original to Carmichael, Whitaker shows, noting that, during the Black Power Conference in the summer of 1966, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. boasted to reporters that he had called for Black Power before young activists like Carmichael had ever heard the phrase.
But “Saying it Loud” does more than merely chronicle who said what and when. Whitaker’s close inspection of the divergent outcomes of Black Power over the course of the year, from the murder of activist Samuel Younge by a white gas station clerk in Tuskegee in January to Maulana Karenga’s organization of the first Kwanzaa celebration in December, illustrates how activists throughout the nation interpreted the slogan differently.
Of note is Whitaker’s rendering of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale’s formative experiences as students at Merritt College in Oakland, before they established the most well-known Black Power era organization, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Few are aware that the Black Panther Party was inspired by the Lowdnes County Freedom Democratic Party, based in Alabama, or of Seale and Newton’s intellectual influences beyond Malcolm X. At Merritt, Seale and Newton met Donald Warden, an activist who dazzled them with his knowledge of Black history and literature, and whose Afro-American Association (AAA) became an incubator for Seale and Newton to consider the ways in which police violence fit within a broader pattern of racial oppression. Eventually, after breaking from the AAA, they established the Oakland Black Panthers for Self-Defense to follow police cars around Oakland to discourage them from harassing Black youth — something Seale and Newton had experienced firsthand.
Perhaps “Saying It Loud”’s most valuable contribution is that it challenges the long-held belief that Black Power was a violent, anti-white turn in a movement known for its non-violent direct action campaigns to eradicate laws and social policies that undermined the democratic virtues of the nation’s founding. Whitaker cuts right through journalists’ sensational claims about Carmichael’s opposition to King, or Black Power’s uniqueness, and demonstrates that the use of the slogan was as much a tactical move to energize the movement as it was a departure from previous goals. Carmichael would spend the rest of his life explaining that Black Power was not a call for violence, but a call for disenfranchised Black people to take political power by exercising their constitutional rights.
When Carmichael climbed atop a U-Haul truck and encouraged fellow Meredith March activists to defy town officials, shouting, “The time for running has come to an end!” he had already prepared to shift activists away from “freedom now” and toward “Black Power.” Meanwhile, the state patrol, peering through gas masks, waited for the order to advance into the crowd, batons raised against those who chose to adhere to Carmichael’s bold proclamation rather than leave as the police demanded. Trapped in the ensuing melee, Carmichael fell to the ground, choking on tear gas, as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Congress of Racial Equality’s Floyd McKissick rushed to his aid. Later King would acknowledge the Meredith March as the last time the Big 6 ever found common cause.
This insight, as well as many others, makes “Saying It Loud” a refreshing history of the Black Freedom Struggle during the year when the dominant idea about racial progress transitioned from an emphasis on non-violent direct action toward a demand for Black self-determination, Black consciousness, and Black pride.
SAYING IT LOUD: 1966 — The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement
By Mark Whitaker
Simon and Schuster, 394 pages, $29.99
Ousmane K. Power-Greene is the author of “The Confessions of Matthew Strong” and “Against Wind and Tide: African Americans Struggle Against the Colonization Movement.”