In the history of African Americans in this country, there have been huge movements and images that seem to capture the mood of the country and the black community at that time. And that phrase « black power » is undoubtedly one of the black community’s simplest and most elegant statements of pride and unity. But it was also a phrase that came to represent the most violent and reprehensible side of the struggle for equality in the black community. And that makes it a controversial phrase then and now.

Probably the greatest image of black power is the strong hand of a black man, clasped in a black glove and raised in the air with defiance and pride. Never has this salute been used so perfectly as at the 1968 Olympics, when Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their black fist with a black glove as they received their medals for their performances at those Olympics.

The term « black power » wasn’t coined during a march or riot as might be implied. It was actually coined by Robert Williams, the head of the NAACP in the early 1960s. But it really began to become a « street term » when it was adopted by Makasa Dada and Stokely Carmichael, founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, forerunner of the famous Black Panther Party.

Unfortunately, the black power movement was characterized by radical elements that went far beyond the pursuit of the goals of Martin Luther King and the rest of the civil rights movement leadership. These radical elements sought black separation and social change through violent means. And so at a time when there was enormous unrest in the country because of the violence in Vietnam and on the streets of America because of this social war, the Black Panthers and other fringe groups sowed fear and hatred in response to the racism that sometimes made it harder to achieve lasting change.

But there’s good to be seen even in some of the darkest elements of black history and the leaders who sought to find the best way forward for African Americans. Sometimes it’s necessary for radical elements to make themselves known so that reasonable members of a community can know the outer limits and find compromise. This was a value for the black power movement because it charged the discussion, albeit violently, and made it all the more important for reasonable Americans to come together to seek peaceful change.

But there was another good that came from the black power movement. Those images of raised fists were images of pride and a willingness to stand up for the rights of black Americans. They inspired a generation of young people to become more politically active, to stand up in their own world and make that statement made famous by James Brown, « Say it loud. I’m black and I’m proud. That pride is an important thing for young people to find. They have to find it in their communities and in their heroes. So, if black youth were proud and courageous to face up to their own situation in the face of the bold stance of leaders who, while radical, said loud and clear that black America was now going to be a force to be reckoned with, the resulting call to action issued to the black community produces far more positive than negative effects. The marginal voice said what was in people’s hearts, and by venting that anger and frustration, it became part of the movement. That energy could be captured and used for good instead of evil. And the end result was a movement that was energized for change and to make life better for all of Black America. And that was what everyone wanted.

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