An Analysis of the Black Power Movement in America

It is not very accurate to say that the Black power movement achieved nothing for Black Americans as although it did not achieve anything solid in terms of political and economic standing for black people, thousands of Black Americans lives were improved due to the work of the SNCC and the Black Panthers from things such as the Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act and the opening of the Child Development Group of Mississipi. Also a great change took place in society in the way black people were viewed both by themselves and by the white community.

Even though Black Power collapsed in the 1970’s, without it the work of Martin Luther King may not have been as effective.

An important Black Power organisation was the Nation of Islam. This was led by Elijah Mohhammad, who took over the movement in 1934, and built temples in the black ghetto’s in the northern cities. Elijah Mohhamad believed in a strong moral code, and disapproved of drinking, gambling and abusing women.

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He believed that black people should be completely independent from white people, and that blacks should protect themselves with force against the whites.

Malcolm X was one of the key figures of the Black Power movement, becoming the leader of the Black Panthers and having a large influence on the advancement of the Nation of Islam, not to mention his inspirational views of black empowerment which led to a real change in the way Black people saw themselves and spurred them on to fight for their rights.

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Malcolm X worked as an effective alternative figure to Martin Luther King as he appealed to black americans from working class backgrounds and younger black men in the northern cities who wanted to escape gambling and drugs which, for them, seemed their only choices to escape poverty.

Malcolm X was also appealing to black ex-convicts, being one himself. He was inspirational to them as he showed that any black person could make something of themselves through hardwork and self discipline. In fact, 90% of the members of New York’s Temple Number Seven had crimminal records. It is also significant that practically none of these members re-offended after joining. Malcolm X’s slogan; “clean yourself up, stand up and do something for yourself” worked very well to inspire and promote The Nation of Islam.

For these reasons, the Black Power Movement in no way did nothing for Black americans as it gave them an alternative champion to relate to as Martin Luther King’s views weren’t to everyone’s liking, especially his views on peaceful protest. Malcolm X largely promoted “self defence” during riots to show that the Black people would not fall victim to white opression. Many blacks living in northern black ghettos had deserted the church so the Nation of Islam also empowered Black people, giving them hope and something of their own to believe in as most had been largely forced to believe in the Christian views of American society. Once again, this did a lot for Black Americans as it was a step towards them winning their identities back after the many years of slavery.

However, although the contrasting ideas of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X allowed the call of Civil Rights to spread throughout the black nation, the differences divided the black Americans which could make the civil rights movement as a whole, less effective because it meant that all blacks could not work together.

Although Black Power did not solve political and economic problems facing northern blacks so much, it did offer practical help to black people living in ghettos as well as ensuring that the problems remained on the political agenda. Activist groups such as the SNCC also gained support because of the stress they placed on self defence and committment to adressing the economic problems of ghettos.

Malcolm X also introduced the idea of embracing native heritage to African Americans by rejecting his “slave” name, Little. He replaced this with the “X” to show that his true, African name was lost. The Black Panthers were founded in 1966, and by this time all adult blacks could vote but the organisation felt this was not enough and that the only way America could be a democracy was if Black Americans had power over black communities. This was in complete contrast to Martin Luther King’s views and attracted many followers due to it’s more radical approach. This gave the black community the idea that they did not have to be equal with white people, they could do well without them and be an independant black nation. This allowed black empowerment as before, black people had been made to feel inferior which was a problem when it came to making a stand against segregation and racisim.

In 1964, Malcolm X went on the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he saw all muslims behaving as equals and he realised that Islam could bring people of all different races together. This experience made him change some of his more extreme views about Blacks taking control of themselves and sepertating from whites. It also made him reject the racist theology of the Nation of Islam. Because of this, he was murdered by the Nation of Islam in 1965 when he was began to make his new views known. This showed that there is some accuracy in saying that Black Power did not achieve as much for black Americans as things didn’t run smoothly and one of the key figures in the movement ended up argeeing more with the opposing power of Martin Luther King.

An example of the change in Black americans attitudes to taking freedom into their own hands was the SNCC’s Free D.C Movement, headed by Marion Barry in 1966. They aimed to bring “home rule” to Washington DC starting with demonstrations against the way local schools were administered. By the end of 1966, black citizens of Washington won the right to elect their own school boards. Barry was also involved in setting up a “Model Police Precinct” controlled by a police board partially elected by the local black community. The SNCC gained $3 million worth of government funding to improve commuinty policing. Another similar project pioneered by the SNCC was when they worked with the local churches in the “Freedom city” of Mississipi to set up the Child Development Group of Mississipi. They raised $1.5 million from the churches and the federal government to set up 85 head start centres to support young children. Although it faced enormous opposition, the project lasted from 1965 to 1967 and improved thousands of lives in Mississipi. These factors show that progress was being made due to Black Power and the lives of a significant amount of Black Americans improved due to the work and influence of the SNCC. Also, acquring government money showed that enough pressure was being put on the them to support the cause.

The Black Panthers educational and health initiatives helped thousands of people in the late 1960’s. One of their best known campaigns concerned sickle cell anemia that predominantly affects black people. By the end of the decade, there were 49 black panther clinics across america and the Illinois People’s Free Medical Care Centre was set up by the BPP. They treated 2000 people in the first two months alone. This was a great achievement for the black Power movement as before, little was known about the illness and the government had no strategy to deal with it. The campaign brought it to the nations attention and in 1972 the government passed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act, committing government money for research.

The Black power movements most profound triumph was the reaffirming of their black identity which slavery and segregation had taken away from African Americans. They had neen seperated from their history and had their independance and pride stripped away. Malcolm X is quoted to have described it as; “the worst crime white man has comitted has been to teach us to hate ourselves”. The SNCC worked to create a new black identity with help from Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton who emphasised the study of black history to connect african americans with their past and provide examples of black figures. The SNCC, the Black panthers and Malcolm X also stressed the need to recognise African heritage. It was crucial to remember their conncetion to africa to build their self respect and pride. Stokely carmichael for instance, took his name from Kwame Ture out of respect for the Ghanaian revolutionary leader. The afro hairstyle also became a popular black symbol which was associated with a well known black radical, Angela Davis. This was of great importance and a great achievement as it it changed black culture and attitudes drastically. This can also be said for the change in American vocabulary due to activists referring to themselves as black with pride and rejecting all the negative variations such as “Negro”. This positive control of language was highly influential and by the end of the 1960’s, “Negro” and “coloured” were words that were no longer the norm. This is an achievement in itself as it shows that positive change is being made not only in the black Americans, but spreading forth to the white community also.

Black Power also made a profound impact through black music. Jazz musician, Miles Davis, formed an all black band, introducing non-western instruments and incorporated ideas from traditional african music and modern black styles pioneered by black artists such as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Davis also fought with his music company to allow pictures of black women to be used on his album covers as only white women had been featured before. His album E.S.P from 1965 was the first to show black women on the cover. This an achievement for Black Power as it made a significant difference to something that previously would not even be considered. To show beautiful black women on a popular album cover would have sparked a great deal of talk and also shows the new found empowerment.

The media portrayal of blacks changed also. The NBC television show Star Trek included a black female character who was highly trained technically competent. Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols came from Africa and spoke Swahili. The name “Uhura” means freedom which was an obvious salute to the Black Power movement. An on screen inter-racial kiss with the character Captain Kirk caused a political storm as at the tme it was only the 2nd inter-racial kiss in american television history.

Another strong black female character was Eartha kitt’s cat woman in the ABC television series Batman. Kitt was a well known advocate of black rights as she had began as a singer and actress in the 1950’s. Bill Cosby, a black comedian, writer and civil rights activist, played a highly educated pentagon spy in I spy which ran from 1965-1968. During this period he was the highest paid entertainer on American television. There was also a radical change in how black Americans were portrayed in films, such as in Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song in 1971. It told the story of the black power movement and graphically depicted the racist violence of the Los Angeles police. It was a box office hit resulting in more mainstream movies being made, reflecting powerful black identity. These were drastic changes and achievements as more figures were being created for Black citizens to look up to and this made them realise that they were just as capable of doing everything white people can do.

Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, kept black power in the news by making the black power salute at the1968 Mexico City Olympics while recieving their medals for the 200 meteres race. This all shows how Black Power made such an impact on the black people of America and how in achieving so much media attention, it put pressure on the government and also showed Black people what they were capable of.

It is true that the Black Power Movement did not achieve much in terms of political and economic change but in the sense of revolutionary standards and inspiration, it did more that the campaigns of Martin Luther King as it spoke to a wider range of people and had many different branches. There were negative aspects which failed to achieve what it aimed for, for instance the conflict within the Black Power Party and the rivalry between the leaders which ultimately led to it disbanding in 1977n’t achieve everything it set out to do, but it did leave an impact on the black community and helped a significant amount of people. Wthout it Black Power, many black americans would never have been inspired to fight for their freedom or regained the self esteem and pride that slavery had taken away from them. Despite the good Black Power did to improve health and slefesteem for black people, President Johnson’s Civil Rights Legislation was proven to have done nothing to stamp out police racism and poverty in urban ghettos. This is because after less than a week a six-day race riot broke out in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles whcih destroyed entire buildings and claimed 34 lives.

In conclusion, the Black Power movement had an enormous impact on culture and society and created a new identity for black people and led to groundbreaking democratic experiments such as the Free D.C movement and the Sickle Cell Anemia Campaign. However, the high profile campaigns of the Black Panthers drew attention from racist opponants such as senator Stennis who used his influence to stop community projects. The Black Power party never succeeded in stamping out police racism and they fell victim to the paranoid hate attacks of the FBI. Despite the failures of Black Power, it is not accurate to say that it achieved nothing. The radicalism and courage of activists became a model for protestors from all backgrounds. Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and women all adopted methods of Black Power.

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An Analysis of the Black Power Movement in America. (2021, Dec 13). Retrieved from

An Analysis of the Black Power Movement in America

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