What Would King Do?
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50 Voices for 50 Years

What Would King Do? Learning from King’s Approach to Black Power


By 1966, calls for “Black Power” electrified the nation. In the preceding year alone, black Americans had witnessed the assassination of Malcolm X, riots it Watts, the black section of Los Angeles, and the shooting of civil rights activist James Meredith, during his attempt to march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to promote black voter registration. This sustained violence led many black Americans to embrace “Black Power”—or calls for black community control, self-determination, and self-defense. The slogan became so popular that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. felt compelled to address it publicly. It was no secret that King did not like the phrase. In October 1966, he claimed that the slogan was “an unwise choice” that had become “dangerous and injurious.”[1] Despite this condemnation, he could not ignore the importance of Black Power to black political life. In that same speech, King also attested to the diversity and promise of the philosophy, indicating the potential of Black Power to ameliorate the dreadful socio-economic conditions impacting black lives.

King admitted that he could “not simply condemn [the] new concept,” as “this new mood ha[d] arisen from real, not imaginary causes.” The Reverend noted that the appeal of Black Power was not “limited to the few who use[d] it to justify violence.” Rather it was the manifestation of the frustration and anger of black Americans who found that the “extravagant promises” of the federal government had been had become little more than a “shattered mockery.” King was speaking of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act— both of which had failed to assure government-enforced desegregation and black voting protections. He was also attesting to the fact that “ghettos, unemployment, housing discrimination and slum schools,” still characterized black life in America. This dehumanization and degradation, King argued, had led many to embrace Black Power as “‘white power’ had left them empty handed.”[2] 

The civil rights leader’s efforts to correct common misperceptions of Black Power was a testament to the multi-faceted movement that was unfolding around him.  As King noted, Black Power “in its extremist sense [was] supported by but a tiny minority.” More often than not, activists interpreted it as a way to “urge acquisition of political power” and foster other forms of black autonomy. During the 1960s and 1970s, activists like Gloria Richardson combined sit-ins and boycotts with armed self-defense in an effort to achieve black equality and autonomy in her hometown of Cambridge, Maryland. Others like Brenda Habia Karenga and Dorothy Jamal attempted to combat white cultural domination by helping to create the US Organization, a Los Angeles-based cultural nationalist group that advocated for black cultural reclamation as a precursor to political revolution. The same year that King spoke out about Black Power saw activists challenge white supremacy with the ballot and the bullet through the national debut of the original Black Panther Party in Lowndes County, Alabama, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, which Huey Newton and Bobby Seale created. Black artists and activists, including Amina Baraka, fused art, education, and community control through the African Free School, an independent educational institution in New Jersey.[3] If, as King argued, “white power” was pervasive, then Black Power activists developed multi-faceted solutions to it.

This same diversity of organizing is apparent in the Black Lives Matter Movement today. Activists across class, gender, and regional backgrounds work to “end the criminalization, incarceration, and killing black people,” develop “independent black political power,” demand “economic justice,” and put the black community in control of “laws, institutions, and policies that are meant to serve them.”[4] Black Lives Matter organizers also make efforts to be inclusive and diverse, learning from the mistakes of previous civil rights organizations that marginalized or completely excluded women, queer, and poor people from their leadership, and sometimes even their ranks, in the 1960s.

King’s approach to Black Power is instructive for celebrating the plurality of black thought and activism today. He simultaneously disagreed with the goals and tactics of Black Power activists and attested to the allure and promise of the philosophy. Most importantly, he found it counterproductive to condemn those who championed opposing beliefs and goals. He discouraged “established” leaders from “denounce[ing] black power advocates,” arguing that wholesale dismissal of their ideas and perspectives would lead down a “road of disaster for all.”[5]

A true commemoration of King requires that we recall and appreciate the complexity of his political positions, rather than sanitized or soundbite versions of his speeches. This includes reflecting on the nuances of his approaches to non-violence and direct action, as well as those strategies and slogans with which he did not always agree. Dr. King was a student of black struggle and liberation, constantly examining his beliefs and those of organizers around him. This model of careful consideration and appreciation for diverse interpretations of black liberation is a crucial part of his legacy that we should continue to cultivate today.

[1] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It Is Not Enough to Condemn Black Power….” October 1966. The King Center Archive, Atlanta, Georgia.

[2] Ibid.

[3] For more information see: Rhonda Y. Williams, Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (New York: Routledge, 2015); Ashley D. Farmer, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2017)

[4] Movement for Black Lives, “Platform,” https://policy.m4bl.org

[5] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It Is Not Enough to Condemn Black Power….”


About Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer is an historian of African-American women's history. Her research interests include women's history, gender history, radical politics, intellectual history, and black feminism. Her first book, Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era, analyzes African-American women's intellectual production to uncover how they shaped gender constructs and political organizing in the black power movement. She earned a BA in French from Spelman College, an MA in History from Harvard University, and a PhD in African American Studies from Harvard University. Dr. Farmer is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and the African American Studies Program at Boston University

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