by Tom Adam Davies, author of Mainstreaming Black Power
This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans. The theme of this year’s conference is “Circulation,” which characterizes many of the subjects historians study, whether migrations, pilgrimages, economies, networks, ideas, culture, conflicts, plagues or demography. #OAH17
With the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, the timing of Black Power’s half centenary last year has been especially poignant. The parallels drawn—by both supporters and detractors—between Black Lives Matter and Black Power activists of half a century ago reflect the fact that for many Americans “Black Power” most readily conjures up images of radical and militant black protest, clashes with authority, and fierce criticism of American society, all against a backdrop of urban unrest. Half a century on, Black Power’s image in the popular imagination is still shaped most powerfully by certain icons, moments, and images, heavily refracted through the lens of the sensationalist white media coverage at the time. Late 2016 brought with it numerous events, publications, and films marking the fiftieth birthday of the Black Panther Party—Black Power icons par excellence—formed in Oakland, California in October 1966. No doubt many column inches will be dedicated to U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised-fist salute, silent protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in August 2018.
It is less likely, however, that the fiftieth anniversary of the first National Black Power Conference, which took place on July 20-23, 1967, will be paid much attention at all. Organized by black Republican Dr. Nathaniel Wright, and held in a salubrious white-owned hotel in Newark, New Jersey, the conference and its cast of attendees (all of whom paid the sizable $25 entry fee) do not fit easily into Black Power’s stereotypical image. The vast majority of conference delegates in Newark were not radicals calling for armed resistance and revolution like the Black Panthers, or criticizing racial and economic injustice in the U.S. like Smith and Carlos; they were elite and middle-class black professionals and business leaders who had a very different vision of Black Power. Their conference concluded after three days, Manning Marable explains in Race, Reform, and Rebellion, with a statement asserting that Black Power really meant African Americans getting a “fair share of American capitalism.”