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3.2: Black Power and Black Studies

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Teresa Hodges
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    Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887 and became one of the most influential and well-known political activists in the early 20th Century. In 1910, he left Jamaica for England and later the United States. He continued to call all three countries home over the course of his life. Garvey is widely credited with being the leading voice for Panafricanism. His ideology emphasized pride, empowerment, and economic prosperity for Black communities, and is so widely studied and documented it came to be known as Garveyism. His speeches and writing encouraged people of African descent around the world to see themselves as part of a united community that could forge solidarity for economic and political alliances, as well as cultural and religious development. For example, the shared identity of Black people around the world was an essential mobilizing factor in the global movement to end South African Apartheid in the 1990s.

    Black Power and Black Nationalism

    Two political frameworks that are important for understanding Garveyism and Black Studies are Black Power and Black Nationalism. Black Power is a movement and political belief system that emphasizes building Black-serving institutions and leaders. The term Black Power was coined by Stokely Carmichael during a speech after being arrested for the 27th time in 1966. Black Nationalism is an ideology emphasizing pride in being Black, economic self-sufficiency, and Black separatism.

    Panafricanism became the foundation for the idea of Blackness and Black identity, which brings together the experience of people of African heritage. This includes African people, African immigrants, and communities with origins on the African continent that have been enslaved, trafficked, and settled in various parts of the world, especially in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America. Marcus Garvey’s legacy lives on in the political and social changes that he inspired, and he is celebrated as the first National Hero of Jamaica. Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) shows a mural of Marcus Garvey in Oakland, California, sporting a military officer’s outfit in a prideful, royal purple hue. This representation reflects Garvey’s ongoing significance as an inspiration for militant, radical advocacy on behalf of Black people. At the end of Garvey’s life in 1940, racial segregation was still legally enforced throughout the United States. It took many other activists and scholars to bring about the wide-scale changes that Garvey called for in his work.

    Marcus Garvey's mural in Oakland, California, sporting a military officer’s outfit in royal purple hue
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Marcus Garvey mural in Oakland, CA (CC BY-NC 2.0; Thomas Hawk via Flickr)

    The Civil Rights Movement

    In the 1940s and 1950s, Black communities in the United States mobilized against Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in all aspects of life. Black people have been formally barred from many aspects of public life, including employment, education, housing, and voting. These legal conventions emboldened white people to participate in racial violence against Black people with no fear of consequence or retribution. This led to further restrictions on Black communities’ ability to travel, participate in culture, observe their religious beliefs, or exist in many public places where white people are present.

    Mobilization for the Civil Rights Movement was driven by women working directly in the community in partnership with churches and religious institutions. While organizers had political goals of changing laws and policies, they also identified that community members had immediate needs for food, housing, education, and other social services. Churches often provided these services, and community members cultivated the time, capacity, and skills to participate in activism. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought together these religious groups to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. While women carried the movement forward on the front lines, the formal organizations and religious institutions in the Civil Rights Movement often prioritized charismatic male leaders to hold positions of authority and power (Robnett, 1997). This includes famous figures like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) displays the statue of Martin Luther King (MLK) that is part of the U.S. Smithsonian Institute’s National Mall, alongside memorials of famous presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Although MLK is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of Black people in the United States, he was just one of many influential leaders during this era who made change happen.

    A statue of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with arms crossed in Washington, DC
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (CC BY-SA 2.0; Scalet Sappho via Flickr)

    The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded in April 1960 and was widely recognized for their sit-ins, Freedom Rides, voter registration drives, and other direct-action campaigns. SNCC’s founding statement of purpose states, “Non-violence… seeks a social order of justice permeated by love… Justice for all overthrows injustice. The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.” 

    The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and Fannie Lou Hamer

    Born to sharecroppers Lou Ella and James Lee Townsend in Montgomery County, Mississippi, on October 6, 1917, Fannie Lou Hamer was the youngest of 20 children. She worked as a sharecropper and a timekeeper for the plantation owner and was married to Perry Hamer. Fannie Lou was an outspoken civil rights activist that endured acts of violence by white doctors, policemen, and politicians. Hamer inspired many people to register to vote and ran for Congress to raise awareness around the acts of terror that white supremacists enacted to prevent Black people from voting.

    Hamer co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in 1964. The Democratic Party in Mississippi barred participation from Black people, and they formed an all-white delegation for the National Democratic Party Convention. The “Dixiecrats” were a branch of southern Democrats who supported racial segregation and held substantial power in the U.S. South. MFDP organized voter registration drives for Black communities throughout Mississippi and supported Black leaders to run for office. They also protested the legitimacy of the Democratic Party delegation at the National Convention.

    Sidebar: Fannie Lou Hamer

    Fannie Lou Hamer was influential because she took a movement-wide perspective on leadership development and change. She was an advocate for the notion that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” This remark was delivered in a national speech presented in Washington, DC in 1971, where she said:

    Now, we’ve got to have some changes in this country. And not only changes for the black man, and not only changes for the black woman, but the changes we have to have in this country are going to be for liberation of all people—because nobody’s free until everybody’s free. And as I wage the Fight in the South, and as I move across the country in helping political people get in office, and as I look at the South and I think about the kind of things that have gone on in the South—right after I voiced my opinion about what had happened to Jo-Etha, the insurance was canceled on my house. On the twenty eighth of January 1971—not ‘61, people—after all of the working and all of the trials and all the tribulations that we’ve had in Mississippi, on January 28, 1974, my house was bombed.

    – Fannie Lou Hamer, July 10, 1971, Washington, D.C.