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.”
Though its fiftieth anniversary will likely pass relatively unnoticed, the first National Black Power Conference (and those that followed it) reminds us that Black Power was a far more complex phenomenon than its popular image often allows for, and that, from the outset, Black Power’s meaning was heavily contested. Different ideas and conceptualizations of Black Power circulated—not only within the black community, but also between the black community and white politicians, liberal foundations, and business executives seeking to negotiate the meaning of Black Power and blunt its radical edge.
And as my forthcoming book Mainstreaming Black Power shows, white power brokers created public policies that advanced a vision of Black Power that celebrated and reinforced mainstream American political, economic, and social values. It was a vision of Black Power shared by many other African Americans, including a majority of those present at the first National Black Power Conference, but one largely antithetical to the kind advocated by radical Black Power activists like the Black Panthers. The policies they created helped to advance the interests of the black middle class and elite but not those of the black poor and working classes. Ultimately, therefore, while the attendees of the first National Black Power Conference may not have as prominent a place in the history of Black Power as their more radical contemporaries, in the longer term it was their vision of Black Power that came closest to realization, and they who gained most from Black Power’s emergence half a century ago.
Tom Adam Davies is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sussex. He specializes in twentieth century postwar political and social American history, with a particular focus on the history of race in the United States and the relationship between public policy and mainstream political institutions and movements for social, economic and political change.