Dark Days, Bright Nights

From Black Power to Barack Obama


By Peniel E. Joseph

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The Civil Rights Movement is now remembered as a long-lost era, which came to an end along with the idealism of the 1960s. In Dark Days, Bright Nights, acclaimed scholar Peniel E. Joseph puts this pat assessment to the test, showing the 60s — particularly the tumultuous period after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — to be the catalyst of a movement that culminated in the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Joseph argues that the 1965 Voting Rights Act burst a dam holding back radical democratic impulses. This political explosion initially took the form of the Black Power Movement, conventionally adjudged a failure. Joseph resurrects the movement to elucidate its unfairly forgotten achievements.

Told through the lives of activists, intellectuals, and artists, including Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Amiri Baraka, Tupac Shakur, and Barack Obama, Dark Days, Bright Nights will make coherent a fraught half-century of struggle, reassessing its impact on American democracy and the larger world.


From Malcolm X’s vivid denunciations of racism outside of Harlem’s gritty storefronts, to Stokely Carmichael’s dramatic call for Black Power in Mississippi, radical black political activists during the civil rights and Black Power era openly questioned America’s capacity to extend full citizenship to African Americans. However, Malcolm’s and Carmichael’s confrontational styles and combative words have obscured their pivotal roles in transforming American democracy. Hailed as bold oracles of racial militancy, their defiant identification with underdogs, ranging from prisoners to sharecroppers, made them particularly attuned to democracy’s shortcomings and jagged edges. The image of Malcolm, his fingers stabbing the air to make a point about racial oppression in America, remains searing. Likewise, the vision of Carmichael, eyes blazing on a humid Mississippi evening as he asserted that only raw political power could definitively protect the lives of African Americans living in the South, persists in our cultural history. Like ancient museum artifacts, these images offer a powerful—if flattened—image of the past. But the popular memory of Malcolm and Carmichael remains misunderstood, focused as it is more on their fiery rhetorical style than the substantive meaning behind their words. Despite their volatile images, Malcolm and Carmichael played crucial roles in America’s extraordinary journey from Black Power to Barack Obama.
Since the nation’s inception, black Americans have been among the most vocal, eloquent, and longstanding proponents of American democracy. Yet due to their status as chattel slavery until 1865 and their subsequent legal disenfranchisement during the Jim Crow era that followed, African Americans’ relationship to democracy remains star-crossed.
In spite of the obstacles, however, black political leaders have held steadfast to a belief in the redemptive values of citizenship in pursuit of larger goals of racial, political, and economic equality. This has remained true from Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech extolling the paradoxical nature of Fourth of July celebrations in a nation scarred by slavery, to Ida B. Wells’s passionate antilynching crusade, and to W E. B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking work as a founder of the NAACP It is now common knowledge that the civil rights movement went a long way toward turning the rhetoric of democracy into a living reality for African Americans. The struggle for civil rights is characterized by a heroic period between the May 17, 1954, Brown Supreme Court decision and the August 6, 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act. Out of this period, iconic images of activists have become enshrined in American memory, such as those who persevered through a long-shot bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, braved snarling German Shepherds and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, and endured mob violence in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Oxford, Mississippi, all before reaching a symbolic mountaintop at the August 28, 1963, March On Washington. As a poetic capstone to this era, the November 4, 2008, presidential election of Barack Obama has become instant folklore: “Rosa sat, so Martin could walk, so Barack could run, so that your children can fly.”
As emotionally powerful as these words may be, they make for poor history. America’s civil rights era remains a far more complex, scattered story. The struggles for justice that animated the modern movement’s high point predated the 1954 Brown decision, just as they also endured beyond the 1965 passage of voting rights legislation.
It is important to keep in mind that struggles for civil rights were not merely confined to isolated bastions of racism in the South. Geographically, Northern civil rights activists likewise began crucial struggles for racial justice. For example, New York City activists waged rent-strikes and demonstrated for open-housing, while Detroit organizers labeled urban renewal programs “Negro removal” and started a brutal fight for school desegregation. Efforts for racial justice in New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey were particularly acute as these five states contained the largest number of blacks living outside of Dixie.1
Like a children’s bedtime story, our national civil rights history demands a happy ending. The movement is remembered as a political and moral good, employing nonviolence to achieve unimpeachable, deserved rights. However, the movement’s resolute and sometimes militant challenge to American democracy’s fundamental flaws remains less visible, and its relationship to the Black Power era continues to be dangerously combustible.
The story requires a suitable hero, and Martin Luther King Jr., stripped of his complexities and ambiguities, is presented as a straight-out-of-central-casting leading man. Our memory of Martin Luther King Jr. remains incomplete when the activist’s increasingly radical critiques of American racism, poverty, and military adventures are eclipsed. Indeed, in the last three years leading up to his Thursday, April 4, 1968, assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, most national observers regarded King as more of a pariah than a prophet. Having spent the vast reserves of his moral and political capital criticizing the Vietnam War and urban and rural poverty, King gambled the remains of his reputation on a Poor People’s Campaign that attempted to shame elected officials into passing sweeping antipoverty legislation. Yet even King retained faith in the redeeming nature of American democracy. Others, however, remained more skeptical.
King’s all-consuming heroism requires not only one, but two major villains. Most often cast in the role of disgruntled spoiler to King’s dreamer, Malcolm X led a local, national, and global movement for Black Power that pointedly questioned democracy’s capacity to extend justice, opportunity, and equality to African Americans. As a local political and religious organizer in Harlem during the 1950s, Malcolm joined forces with labor, political, civic, and religious leaders to confront the police brutality, poverty, and violence plaguing urban black communities.
A national figure by the late 1950s, Malcolm participated in a long-running dialogue regarding the very nature of American democracy. In speech after speech during the early 1960s, Malcolm challenged the Kennedy administration to protect civil rights workers, punish racist law breakers, and protect the integrity of America’s Constitution. After breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm expressed admiration for the Declaration of Independence’s lofty idealism while also castigating America for its failure to put that democratic theory into practice. Thus, Malcolm’s critique of American democracy defined the contours of the movement to come.
Most often remembered for coining the phrase “Black Power,” Stokely Carmichael was a civil rights militant turned Black Power activist who embodied the civil rights movement’s redemptive form and tone. As a member of the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”), Carmichael braved rural prison farms, tear gas, and routine violence in his painstaking efforts to secure poor sharecroppers the right to vote. By 1966, Carmichael argued that Black Power—the belief in self-determination, racial and cultural pride, and the global nature of domestic antiracist activism—held the key to the promotion of genuine democracy.
With his unabashedly confrontational public statements, Carmichael managed to scandalize the American public and press. Yet over four decades after “Black Power” entered the national lexicon, Carmichael’s complex challenge to American society remains vital to still raging debates over race, war, and democracy.
Black Power remains the most misunderstood social movement of the postwar era. It was demonized as the civil rights movement’s “evil twin” and stereotyped as a politics of rage practiced by gun-toting Black Panthers. Because of this, the movement’s supple intellectual provocations, pragmatic local character, and domestic- and foreign-policy critiques remain on the fringes of America’s memory of the 1960s. Nonetheless, Black Power’s cultural and political flourishes, militant posture, and provocative rhetoric permanently altered the contours of American identity, citizenship, and democracy.
It was at the neighborhood level, where activists blended radical and at times revolutionary rhetoric with political pragmatism, where Black Power’s quiet side emerged. Although some militants steadfastly promoted violent revolution to the bitter end, others proved more flexible, adopting strategies that helped the movement make enduring marks in education, art, and politics. Black Power-era politicians such as Maynard Jackson and Harold Washington embraced the movement, but with a moderate perspective that was attuned, they argued, to prevailing political realities.
As a result, the real and symbolic struggles that animated much of this postwar black activism have culminated in Barack Obama’s presidential election. For most Americans, Obama’s ascension to the pinnacle of political power vindicates King’s vision of a color-blind democracy. The image of the nation’s first African American president-elect instantly reverberated around the world as a triumphant testament to historic struggles for racial justice. However, Obama’s election also called into question the civil rights-era understanding of domestic race relations and the continued viability of the politics of racial solidarity. Conservative pundits put the matter more crudely, arguing that Obama’s election would end the politics of “racial grievances” practiced by “professional agitators” such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
The truth is that Obama’s climb to the top of American politics does not so much illustrate the end but rather the evolution of black politics. Americans old enough to have lived through the 1960s collectively marveled at Obama’s election, a sight that many believed they would not witness in their lifetime. Yet the powerful symbolism attached to Obama’s election can do little to end generations of racially based poverty or restore income and wealth lost during slavery and Jim Crow. Nor can it wipe away national scars of slavery and lynching. Obama’s election does, however, offer hope in the concept of democracy, one that African Americans, more than any other group, have always taken to heart. This does not mean, on the other hand, that it guarantees a more sophisticated approach to foreign policy toward Africa and the larger Third World. As Obama’s July 11, 2009, speech to the Ghanaian Parliament made painfully clear, American policy toward Africa (even with a black president) remains mired in a Janus-faced strategy that simultaneously acknowledges the brutal legacy of slavery and colonialism as a historical burden while it also ultimately locates blame for the continent’s present troubles on government corruption. Obama’s enormous popularity overseas and especially in Africa has helped gloss over such consistencies in U.S. policy after the transition to a black president. The politics of racial identification and solidarity implicit in Obama’s international appeal have made his every move outside of American soil a historic event, one in which symbolism, as in the case of Africa, at times overpowers substance. Six months after his inauguration and fresh from his trip to Ghana, Obama addressed America’s racial legacy directly in a July 16 speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was an event that, from all reports, the president and the White House took seriously. Aides reported that Obama worked on the speech for two weeks and continued to make revisions right up until the last minuted 2
In New York City to celebrate the venerable civil rights group’s one hundredth anniversary, Obama gave his most lucid domestic speech about race since being inaugurated. In discussing the NAACP’s origins amid a particularly low period in black history—when unabated racial strife seemed to escalate with each passing day—Obama confronted part of America’s history that remains a sensitive national subject. In front of a well-heeled crowd of African American civic, political, and business leaders, he offered a brief history lesson that acknowledged the rough road traveled by generations of blacks in order to achieve the kind of racial progress that his very presence—as the nation’s first black president addressing a body devoted to ending racial discrimination—so powerfully symbolized. As he is fond of doing, Obama mentioned some of the epic battles fought during the civil rights era’s heroic period, including the Freedom Rides, the sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina, and efforts to register black sharecroppers in Mississippi. Following a quick tour through the contemporary ills that find blacks more likely than any other group in the nation to face unemployment, incarceration, and health crises, Obama discussed the need to challenge blacks to take on more personal responsibility.
In a passage from his speech that would be interrupted by applause four times, Obama transformed himself from statesman to preacher, admonishing black parents to teach their kids that, in spite of long odds, they could in fact succeed: “No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children.” For good measure and in a departure from his prepared text, the president continued: “No excuses. No excuses.”3
Before he closed his speech, Obama recalled his recent trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, a critical way station on the arduous journey from West Africa to the New World taken by untold numbers of Africans. He reminded those present of the courage displayed by blacks on their journey from slavery to freedom and challenged his audience to display the same tenacity as recent generations did during the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Part Sunday-morning sermon, part university lecture, and part autobiographical memoir, President Obama’s thirty-four minute speech navigated a racial tightrope made all the more difficult by his own political ascendance. While characterizing America as having “less discrimination” than at any other time in its history, by forthrightly discussing the litany of racially based challenges still confronting the black community, Obama’s address implicitly refuted the notion that his own election had thrust the nation into a “post-racial” future.
Portions of Obama’s speech that touched upon racism’s institutional legacy undoubtedly comforted black activists and organizers who were fearful that the nation’s first black president remained too reticent to directly address the most pernicious racial matters. Other parts of Obama’s NAACP speech—especially the “tough love” message to wayward black parents—galvanized the now accepted feeling within large swaths of the black community that the once-strong bonds of family, civility, love, and respect that sustained African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, and poverty have become strained in the civil rights movement’s aftermath. The dissolving of the tight-knit relationships that preserved black folks during some of the nation’s darkest days is perhaps an unintended legacy of America’s post-Jim Crow regime. This message also resonates with moderate and conservative whites, who applauded the president’s words as a much needed message of personal responsibility—one that no white politicians could have gotten away with.
On the subject of race, Obama, out of political necessity, continues to outline a rough and at times improvisational vision of America that combines a candid understanding of America’s tragic racial past with a clear-eyed vision of its future. Yet some people nurture a pervasive nostalgia for a communal past and shared identity among blacks, one forged through the crucible of Jim Crow segregation and whose brutality transcended class distinctions. Unfortunately, this nostalgia can be dangerous. It romanticizes America’s Jim Crow years as an era in which family values flourished while it also indicts the contemporary black poor for failing to take advantage of the sacrifices made during that period.
When he discussed renewing an ethic of parental discipline in black communities, Obama validates a sepia-toned black past that, in turn, encourages a two-dimensional portrait of the present. He stated that, “We need to go back to the time, back to the day when we parents saw somebody, saw some kid fooling around and—it wasn’t your child, but they’ll whup you anyway.” This line evoked laughter and applause from the audience—a sentiment shared by press coverage of the speech, which largely ignored the complex discussion of race and democracy in favor of the soundbites of Obama’s address that spoke to black responsibility.4
The abbreviated press coverage glossed over the subtler complexities of Obama’s message. By not widely reporting portions of Obama’s NAACP address that lingered over America’s racial past and criticized the nation’s democratic shortcomings, the press stripped the president’s speech of some of its rich complexity. In doing so, popular media was able to maintain a more simple and patronizing image of the first black president as a racial healer who, in certain instances, is willing to air out the African American community’s dirty laundry. This false image ignores the subtle dimensions of Obama’s NAACP speech wherein he positioned problems of poor health care and crumbling schools as American rather than black issues.5
Obama’s strategy amounts to an acknowledgment that race-based solutions to historic discrimination no longer carry the moral weight and political urgency that they did only a generation ago. Instead, Obama’s rhetorical call to arms situates issues that, in the past, have been largely framed in racial terms—and for good reason—as now being universal problems that impact the entire country and thus merit national action. If such a perspective becomes conventional wisdom, it will turn centuries of racial thinking on its head.
This will be more difficult than most people assumed after Obama’s election. On the same day that Obama delivered his NAACP speech, Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home by local police in Cambridge after being mistaken as an intruder. Gates’s arrest quickly triggered a national firestorm over the eminent African American Studies professor. Gates accused the Cambridge police of racial profiling while the arresting officer’s report characterized the fifty-eight-year-old Gates as an academic-turned-thug whose belligerence led to his own arrest. Obama weighed in on the Gates controversy a week later during a July 23, 2009, press conference designed to promote his ambitious universal health care proposal. The president characterized the Cambridge police as acting “stupidly” on the one hand while acknowledging his own election as an example of the nation’s enormous racial progress on the other. A majority of white Americans polled found Obama’s words to be offensive, as did police unions across the nation. Within a short time, Obama admitted that he chose his words poorly. He then invited Professor Gates and Sergeant James Crawley to the White House for a meeting over drinks, which journalists dubbed the “Beer Summit.” Obama’s first racial firestorm provides a window into the current state of race relations. Despite euphoria over the nation’s election of its first black president, America remains a long way from embracing the kind of racial maturity that allows for an open and honest dialogue about racism’s historic legacy and contemporary persistence.6
This country has a long history of considering blacks a “problem” for American democracy, rather than asking why democracy itself has such difficulty accounting for their equal citizenship—W. E. B. Du Bois called this phenomenon “the unasked question.” Obama’s most transformative achievement as president may rest on his ability, through speeches and concrete policy, to bridge this chasm of perception between black folk and the rest of the nation. This chasm still frustrates the everyday hopes, dreams, and yearning faced by too many African Americans. Only when black issues are taken seriously as both historically specific and nationally substantive—rather than racial grievances, complaints, or pathologies—will institutionally based racial disparities begin the long road toward recovery.
Obama embraces a tradition of black activism that recognizes that the inherent tension between race and democracy remains at the heart of the American saga. But where Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael grew disillusioned with the gap between America’s high ideals and practical realities, Obama remains convinced of its transformative capacity. Because of this, he frequently hails his own election as proof of democracy’s enormous possibilities.
But even in the Age of Obama, the racial and political turmoil rooted in the social and political movements of the 1960s persists. Indeed, one conservative news commentator went so far as to compare First Lady Michelle Obama to “Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress”7 shortly after the inauguration of America’s first black president. The comparison stemmed from two factors. First, Mrs. Obama made widely publicized comments during the election season (“for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country”) that opponents seized on as proof of a glaring lack of patriotism. Secondly, a larger stereotype, caricaturizing her as strident, arrogant, and angry, is perpetuated through much popular media. Anger remains the characteristic that Stokely Carmichael is best remembered for, despite the fact that, in the face of racism and dangerous resistance, he spent years heroically organizing in the small towns and hamlets that dotted Mississippi and Alabama’s rural black belt.
Attempts to link Michelle Obama to Black Power militancy resounded across the ideological spectrum. This effort ranged from the conservative Fox News Channel to even the liberal New Yorker, which portrayed her as an Angela Davis-type radical, complete with bandolier (and with Obama as a turban-wearing terrorist). Underlying these puerile and profane efforts to identify Michelle Obama—and by association her husband—as a reincarnation of 1960s-based racial militancy is the fact that their ascension to the highest realm of American politics represents an example of black power once thought inconceivable.
The difficulties in accepting the Obamas as “mainstream Americans” is partially related to misconceptions about the civil rights era that have flourished over the past several decades. Historians and the larger public have been slow to recognize and acknowledge the role of the intersection between race and democracy in dramatically reshaping the national character. Despite the importance given to the civil rights movement, the changes wrought by the sixties are too often thought of as the product of white, middle-class Baby Boomers bucking their parents’ generation. This is an important historical turn, to be sure, but one that pales in comparison to the impact of the black social revolutions on our contemporary understanding of democracy and American society.
The failure to identify radical black activism with efforts to expand democracy further diminishes and isolates both historic and contemporary racial justice movements. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Power Movement attempted to, in complex and at times contradictory ways, transform American democracy. Black Power’s penchant for verbal pyrotechnics has obscured its concrete efforts—from the neighborhood level to American foreign policy toward Africa—to confront, challenge, and reform democratic institutions. Although Barack Obama’s unprecedented rise to power represents progress for the black freedom struggle’s long quest for racial justice, its reception throughout the media also illustrates the limits of contemporary American race relations.
Dark Days, Bright Nights is not a linear story of social and political struggle culminating in political triumph. The chapters that follow promise no happy ending. Instead, they probe the transformations in postwar America since the civil rights era through key historical figures who found common ground in trying to reimagine American democracy. Black militants during the 1960s did this primarily through protests that looked toward the political arena as a tool for social and political justice. However, they also made efforts at the grassroots level that pushed the boundaries of citizenship, democracy, and civic action to their outer limits.
Thus, American democracy’s unprecedented postwar expansion can be directly traced back to African American political activism during the civil rights—Black Power era. But the swirling controversies of Hurricane Katrina and Louisiana’s Jena 6 stand as poignant twenty-first-century testaments to the nation’s unfinished quest for racial and economic justice—even as Obama’s historic election offers bittersweet hope for a more just future. Blacks continue in their insistence that democracy matters and that it remains at the core of movements for social, economic, and racial justice. But what democracy means, precisely, continues to be a matter of debate, one whose tenor has changed quite dramatically over time.
This book is animated by the examples of grassroots black activists of the postwar era who recognized that the vast spectrum of movements for racial justice were, in fact, all movements for democracy. Without such an understanding, it is doubtful that twenty-first-century America, whose racial landscape promises to be even more socially and politically charged, will be able to cope with the challenges it faces in its efforts to achieve justice for all of its people.



On Sale
Jan 5, 2010
Page Count
288 pages
Civitas Books

Peniel E. Joseph

About the Author

Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of award-winning books on African American history, including The Sword and the Shield and Stokely: A Life. He lives in Austin, Texas.  

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