The movement for Black Power in the U.S. emerged from the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. Beginning in 1959, Robert F. Willams, president of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, openly questioned the ideology of nonviolence and its domination of the movement’s strategy. Williams was supported by prominent leaders such as Ella Baker and James Forman, and opposed by others, such as Roy Wilkins(the national NAACP chairman) and Martin Luther King. In 1961, Maya Angelou, Leroi Jones, and Mae Mallory led a riotous (and widely-covered) demonstration at the United Nations to protest the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Malcolm X, national representative of the Nation of Islam, also launched an extended critique of nonviolence and integrationism at this time.
After seeing the increasing militancy of blacks in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and wearying of the domination of Elijah Muhammed over the Nation of Islam, Malcolm left that organization and engaged with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm was now open to voluntary integration as a long-term goal, but still supported armed self-defense, self-reliance, and black nationalism; he became a simultaneous spokesman for the militant wing of the Civil Rights Movement and the non-separatist wing of the Black Power movement.
An early manifestation of Black Power in popular culture was the performances given by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall in March 1964, and the album In Concert which resulted from them. Simone mocked liberal nonviolence (“Go Limp”), and took a vengeful position toward white racists (“Mississippi Goddamn” and her adaptation of “Pirate Jenny”). Historian Ruth Feldstein writes that, “Contrary to the neat historical trajectories which suggest that black power came late in the decade and only after the ‘successes’ of earlier efforts, Simone’s album makes clear that black power perspectives were already taking shape and circulating widely…in the early 1960s.”
By 1966, most of SNCC’s field staff, among them Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), were becoming critical of the nonviolent approach to confronting racism and inequality—articulated and promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and other moderates—and rejected desegregation as a primary objective.
SNCC’s base of support was generally younger and more working-class than that of the other “Big Five” civil rights organizations and became increasingly more militant and outspoken over time. From SNCC’s point of view, racist people had no qualms about the use of violence against black people in the U.S. who would not “stay in their place,” and “accommodationist” civil rights strategies had failed to secure sufficient concessions for black people. As a result, as the Civil Rights Movement progressed, increasingly radical, more militant voices came to the fore to aggressively challenge white hegemony. Increasing numbers of black youth, particularly, rejected their elders’ moderate path of cooperation, racial integration and assimilation. They rejected the notion of appealing to the public’s conscience and religious creeds and took the tack articulated by another black activist more than a century before, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who wrote:
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. …Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.
Most early 1960s civil rights leaders did not believe in physically violent retaliation. However, much of the African-American rank-and-file, and those leaders with strong working-class ties, tended to compliment nonviolent action with armed self-defense. For instance, prominent nonviolent activist Fred Shuttlesworth of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (and a leader of the 1963 Birmingham campaign), had worked closely with an armed defense group that was led by Colonel Stone Johnson. As Alabama historian Frye Gaillard writes,
…these were the kind of men Fred Shuttlesworth admired, a mirror of the toughness he aspired to himself…They went armed [during the Freedom Rides], for it was one of the realities of the civil rights movement that
however nonviolent it may have been at its heart, there was always a current of ‘any means necessary,’ as the black power advocates would say later on.
During the March Against Fear, there was a division between those aligned with Martin Luther King, Jr. and those aligned with Carmichael, marked by their respective slogans, “Freedom Now” and “Black Power.”
While King never endorsed the slogan, his rhetoric sometimes came close to it. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here?, King wrote that “power is not the white man’s birthright; it will not be legislated for us and delivered in neat government packages.”