Americans responded to the Voting Rights Act with new kinds of racist violence and antiracist rebellion. Black people in Los Angeles’s Watts neighborhood rebelled in response to police violence. Meanwhile, Angela Davis heading to Germany to study philosophy, and in Denmark, scholars were holding a conference about new racist words like “Black,” “ghetto,” and “minority.” But the Black activist and SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael decided that Black Americans should embrace the word “Black.” He started calling for “Black Power”—meaning that Black communities should become self-sufficient. But white people and Black assimilationists thought that he wanted Black supremacy—again, they confused antiracism with anti-white racism.
Like every other major antiracist achievement in American history, the Voting Rights Act led to a powerful racist backlash. As usual, racists confused antiracist calls for equality with calls for Black supremacy. And antiracists responded in turn, like they have after every other racist backlash. Academic conferences seem like the total opposite of on-the-ground action, but actually, the Black Power movement combined these opposites into a popular movement. Unlike many previous activist movements, Black Power was explicitly antiracist, in part because it was intended for a Black audience rather than a white one.
Meanwhile, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense started calling for social change (like better jobs, housing, and education) and organizing social programs around the country. Angela Davis moved back to the U.S. and started a Black Student Union at UC-San Diego. Across the country, Black students organized for social change, and Dr. King started building a Poor People’s Campaign to call for an “economic bill of rights” for all Americans. As always, the media struck back: the blockbuster Planet of the Apes used apes controlling Earth as a metaphor for “the dark world rising against the White conqueror.” White people responded to Black Power by calling for “law and order.”
The Black Panthers, Black Student Unions, and Poor People’s Campaign were all antiracist groups that carried on the civil rights movement’s work and fought for broader kinds of social change. But they are not as widely remembered in part because they have not been as successful. In particular, Dr. King is better remembered for his seemingly assimilationist “I Have a Dream” speech than his later socialist, antiracist activism. Like Tarzan, Planet of the Apes used racist stereotypes—namely, the old racist idea that Black people are subhuman, closer to apes than white people—to drum up white support for racist policies. Finally, “law and order” is still a popular political slogan. It’s a race-neutral way of conveying a racist idea: that Black people’s political organizations and dissatisfaction with the government are illegitimate, and the government should attack them with force.
Then, Dr. King was assassinated. In response, the Black Power movement grew exponentially. The singer James Brown told Black people to “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Black people embraced African clothing and natural hairstyles, and Black students protested to create Black Studies departments at colleges and universities. They built an antiracist coalition with white anti-war protestors and Latinx activists. But the Black Power movement had its faults. For instance, it was sexist. Angela Davis felt that Black Power didn’t take her seriously as a woman. Instead, she joined the Communist Party and started working for its antiracist Che-Lumumba Club.
In schools and popular culture, Dr. King’s story is often disconnected from the Black Power movement. King is viewed as a heroic Black leader who won important victories and whose views are no longer controversial. But the Black Power movement is seen as militant, dangerous, and anti-white—its views are absolutely still controversial. This popular culture is racist: it reduces King to his assimilationist aspects, while rejecting Black Power’s antiracism. In reality, they were both fighting the same fight. Angela Davis was an important visionary because she also saw how antiracist movements have to collaborate with movements against other kinds of oppression—like sexism and class inequality. She was an early pioneer of what is now called intersectionality—or an approach to justice that focuses on how different kinds of oppression overlap and intersect.