What Happened To The Gains From The Black Power Movement
It was precisely at that zenith when things began to fall apart for the unified momentum of the Black Power Movement. From Africa to the Caribbean and the United States, the broad united front around the demand for black self-determination won the initial battles for home rule only to be confronted with a new question: who rules at home? Cleavages in black communities exploded around emerging class and gender conflicts as early victories proved disappointing. In some cases, movement activists charged middle-class betrayal; in other cases, they shouted against neo-colonialism. But everywhere, the discussions and debates turned to an analysis of the rise of different class interests in the black world: how would they explain it? In response, the youthful movement leadership responded at times defensively, at times immaturely, at times violently, at times rigidly, at times quixotically, at times angrily; tragically, however, it was only on rare occasions that it responded very wisely to the rising challenges of race, class, and gender.
To make matters worse, lost in quick succession were most of the veteran theoretical leaders who had demonstrated some prowess in race and class analysis in the black world. Frantz Fanon died in the hospital. Amílcar Cabral, who insisted on a clearer understanding of theory and ideology, was assassinated in early 1973 after he returned from the United States, where he had given the Black Power movement new confidence in moving to the Left without losing its bearings.
Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Amílcar Cabral also proved irreplaceable.
In the profound ideological vacuum, the Black Power movement became a plaything in the hands of professional local, national, and special police forces as well as national and international counterintelligence agencies. Groups were pitted against one another in small deadly wars. Unknowingly at the behest of the police and the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the Black Panther Party and the US Organization effectively paralyzed each other. Soon thereafter Karenga was imprisoned.
In many cases, the local police forces simply assassinated the most promising young Black Panther leaders, such as Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in a predawn raid, killing them as they slept. Panther headquarters from Los Angeles to Des Moines to Philadelphia were assaulted by the police forces.
In Philadelphia, scores of Panthers were stripped naked and paraded through the streets at gunpoint. Mumia Abu-Jamal was framed and imprisoned for murder in Philadelphia; similarly, Assata Shakur was shot and imprisoned in New Jersey by the state police. In Guyana, Professor Walter Rodney was blown up with a car bomb. Those were well-planned, awesome, and irreparable setbacks. In response, many groups became even more brittle in their political doctrines at a moment when political and tactical maneuvering was required to sustain the movement.
At the May 1974 African Liberation Day debate in Washington, D.C., the remaining radical leaders sought a new direction for the struggle: Which Way Black Liberation? Instead of finding consensus, they divided into two hostile camps professing their faith under the banners of Black Nationalism and Marxism-Leninism. In turn, those hostile camps took the poisonous debate into the long-awaited Sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania, where the political camps further divided, adding another level of complicated division—one between the African states and the non-state liberation movements.
Nonetheless, strong winds of change in the black world were also edging the movement to the Left. The Portuguese colonial empire in Africa crumbled under the dual pressures of African liberation movements, on the one hand, and the 1974 Portuguese Revolution, on the other. Sadly, a number of American radicals saw that revolutionary development, coupled with the defeat of America in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as a signal that revolution was possible immediately in the United States as well. That was a gross, immature, and lethal miscalculation, the illusion that “revolution was just around the corner.” Furthermore, in their divisive attempts to form a Russian-style revolutionary party, a number of the Black Power groups paralyzed or unraveled key national organizations that controlled vital links in a national political and communications infrastructure.
Black Studies programs crumbled during “ideological debates.” The editors of the Black Scholar journal split in two camps. The Black World journal was yet another casualty. Political organizations fell apart overnight, and the movement unraveled. The officers of the African Liberation Support Committee abandoned its national headquarters without notice, leaving the regional and local branches in chaos. The National Black Political Assembly, a rich outgrowth of the Gary Convention, turned into two or three warring camps and flew apart. In short, key Black Power movement leaders forfeited leadership, while others were helpless to stop the collapse.