(l-r) Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture) and Ekwueme Michael Thelwell
Photo from book, Ready For Revolution

The Fundamentals of Black Power


To understand the Black Power concepts, it is necessary to examine the large body of original work, both oral and written, produced by Stokely Carmichael in collaboration with SNCC staff and Black scholars who helped elaborate on related themes.

SNCC and Carmichael produced three definitive books: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America,[1] co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton in 1967; Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism, edited by SNCC communications director Ethel Minor in 1972; and Ready for Revolution: the Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael, co-authored with former SNCC worker Ekwueme Michael Thelwell and published in 2003.[2]

In Ready for Revolution, Carmichael credited the collaborators of Black Power publications:

“…After a debate I had with Bayard Rustin in New York on Black Power, who should be in the audience but sister Toni Morrison, now an editor with a big publisher [Random House]. She wondered whether it wouldn’t be valuable to expand the paper [“Toward Black Liberation”] into a full-length book—a full discussion of the concept, free from media distortion.

“Professor Charles Hamilton [was] a political scientist at Lincoln University. We produced the book Black Power, the Politics of Liberation in America. More than collaboration between Brother Hamilton and me, that book was in many ways a collective SNCC Project. A lot of folks—Elizabeth Sutherland Martinez, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Courtland Cox, and Jim Foreman—all contributed to different sections. It must have done all right because two years later the publisher and Sister Morrison brought out a collection of my political speeches. By then I was back-and-forth between Guinea and here. Stokely Speaks was collected and edited by Ethel Minor, a very dedicated and conscious SNCC sister. A strong capable sister, Ethel did an excellent job on Stokely Speaks. ’Nuff said!”[1]

[1] Carmichael, Ready for Revolution, p. 548.

This text includes excerpts from two of the most important articles about Black Power, both published in the fall of 1966. The first is “Toward Black Liberation,” written by Carmichael and Thelwell. The full article was published by SNCC Publications; excerpts were also published in The Massachusetts Review.

The second article is “Stokely Carmichael: The Architect of Black Power,” an interview published in Ebony by Lerone Bennett, Jr., who was the magazine’s senior editor at the time. Both were aprepared for the diverse audiences addressed by Black Power.


A. Toward Black Liberation

“Toward Black Liberation” was the first position paper written by Carmichael and SNCC on the subject of Black Power. A motivating factor in producing this paper was the harsh criticism SNCC and Carmichael had received from Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP.

British historian Simon Hall wrote:

“On 5 July 1966, Wilkins … attacked Black Power in remarkably uncompromising terms: ‘No matter how endlessly they try to explain it,’ he said, ‘the term “Black Power” … has to mean “going it alone.” It has to mean separatism.’ For the NAACP leader, it was ‘a reverse Mississippi, a reverse Hitler, a reverse Ku Klux Klan …. the father of hatred and the mother of violence.’”[1]

[1] Simon Hall, “The NAACP, Black Power, and the African American Freedom Struggle, 1966-1969,” The Historian, 69(1): 58.

After the denunciation by Wilkins, SNCC had to respond. Carmichael recalled:

“After the NAACP convention, the Executive Committee (of SNCC) decided that we had to make a clear statement that would cut through the hysteria and inject some rationality into the discussion that was getting crazier by the moment. The committee decided that SNCC needed a position paper and mandated me to develop one. Mike Thelwell and I decided we needed to give the argument focus, to make it plain, to discuss both politics and culture. The essay we produced that weekend was “Toward Black Liberation” and is generally accepted [as] SNCC’s first position paper on Black Power.[1]


[1] Carmichael, Ready for Revolution, p. 526.

Toward Black Liberation
CRMVETS archives

1. Early in the essay, Carmichael introduced the concepts of “individual and institutionalized racism” and placed them in the context of American society:

“There have been traditionally two communities in America. The White community, which controlled and defined the forms that all institutions within the society would take, and the Negro community which has been excluded from participation in the power decisions that shaped the society, and has traditionally been dependent upon, and subservient to the White community.

“This has not been accidental. The history of every institution of this society indicates that a major concern in the ordering and structuring of the society has been the maintaining of the Negro community in its condition of dependence and oppression. This has not been on the level of individual acts of discrimination between individual whites against individual Negroes, but as total acts by the White community against the Negro community. This fact cannot be too strongly emphasized—that racist assumptions of white superiority have been so deeply ingrained in the structure of the society that it infuses its entire functioning, and is so much a part of the national subconscious that it is taken for granted and is frequently not even recognized.”

2. As the essay continued, the authors identified the struggles of the Negro in America with those of other oppressed Black and brown people in the world:

“It is more than a figure of speech to say that the Negro community in America is the victim of white imperialism and colonial exploitation. This is in practical economic and political terms true. There are over 20 million black people comprising ten percent of this nation. They for the most part live in well-defined areas of the country—in the shanty-towns and rural black belt areas of the South, and increasingly in the slums of northern and western industrial cities. If one goes into any Negro community, whether it be in Jackson, Miss., Cambridge, Md., or Harlem, N.Y., one will find that the same combination of political, economic, and social forces are at work. The people in the Negro community do not control the resources of that community, its political decisions, its law enforcement, its housing standards; and even the physical ownership of the land, houses, and stores lie outside that community.

“The question is, of course, what kinds of changes are necessary, and how is it possible to bring them about?”

3. In direct response to Roy Wilkins, Carmichael and Thelwell paid special attention to  the concept of  “integration” and explained  why it wasn’t designed to benefit the masses of Black people:

“In recent years, the answer to these questions which has been given by most articulate groups of Negroes and their white allies—the ‘liberals’ of all stripes—has been in terms of something called ‘integration.’ According to the advocates of integration, social justice will be accomplished by ‘integrating the Negro into the mainstream institutions of the society from which he has been traditionally excluded.’ It is very significant that each time I have heard this formulation; it has been in terms of ‘the Negro,’ the individual Negro, rather than in terms of the community.
“This concept of integration had to be based on the assumption that there was nothing of value in the Negro community and that little of value could be created among Negroes, so the thing to do was to siphon off the ‘acceptable’ Negroes into the surrounding middle-class white community. Thus the goal of the movement for integration was simply to loosen up the restrictions barring the entry of Negroes into the white community….

“Such a limited class orientation was reflected not only in the program and goals of the civil rights movement, but in its tactics and organization. It is very significant that the two oldest and most ‘respectable’ civil rights organizations have constitutions which specifically prohibit partisan political activity….The civil rights movement saw its role as a kind of liaison between the powerful white community and the dependent Negro one. The dependent status of the black community apparently was unimportant since—if the movement were successful—it was going to blend into the white community anyway. We made no pretense of organizing and developing institutions of community power in the Negro community, but appealed to the conscience of white institutions of power. The posture of the civil rights movement was that of the dependent, the suppliant. The theory was that without attempting to create any organized base of political strength itself, the civil rights movement could, by forming coalitions with various ‘liberal’ pressure organizations in the white community—liberal reform clubs, labor unions, church groups, progressive civic groups, and at times one or other of the major political parties—influence national legislation and national social patterns.

“I think we all have seen the limitations of this approach. We have repeatedly seen that political alliances based on appeals to conscience and decency are chancy things, simply because institutions and political organizations have no consciences outside their own special interests. The political and social rights of Negroes have been and always will be negotiable and expendable the moment they conflict with the interests of our ‘allies.’ If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it…”[3]

After its publication, the framework provided in “Toward Black Liberation” became the foundation of Carmichael’s and SNCC’s subsequent articles and speeches on Black Power.

B. “Stokely Carmichael: Architect of Black Power”

In an extended interview with Stokely Carmichael published in the Sept. 1966 issue of Ebony magazine, Lerone Bennett, Jr. helped lay out key principles of Black Power for the magazine’s predominantly middle-class Black readers and quoted Carmichael’s four “facets of the Black Power philosophy”:

“Black Power is a Black declaration of independence. It is a turn inward, a rallying cry for a people in the sudden labor of self-discovery, self-naming, and self-legitimization. We are demanding four things from Black people:

  1. that they stop being ashamed of being Black;
  2. that they move into a position where they can define what freedom is, what a white liberal is, what Black nationalism is, what power is;
  3. that they move to build a power base around the question of Blackness;
  4. that they move to build independent political, social, economic, and cultural institutions that they can control and use as instruments of social change.”

Cover of Ebony Magazine featuring “Stokely Carmichael: Architect of  Black Power” article written by Lerone Bennett Jr

Lerone Bennett, Jr. stands before the Johnson Publishing Company building. Source:
Chicago Public Library

Bennett Explores Stokely Carmichael Concept of Black Power

“Black Power is a demand that Black and white people recognize and actualize the existing power potential of Black Americans. In its simplest form, it is a demand for majority control in areas where Black people are in the majority and a proportional share (20 percent where the Black population is 20 percent of the total) of key decision-making posts in areas where they are in the minority. If conceded or taken, this would mean Black control in several black belt counties and Southern cities and eventual Black control in Baltimore, Washington, Newark, and other major American cities that will soon have black majorities.

“Black Power is an attempt to instill pride in Black Americans and develop the attitudes favorable to the seizing and retention of power. In order to get power, you have to want power; and in order to want power, you have to know what power is; you have to know that power—and power alone—stands between you and the realization of your goals. Black Power is an attempt to develop an appetite for Black power by exposing the limits of white power when confronted with a united Black group.”

“Black Power is a developing program that will ultimately be defined in action by Black Americans. As a means of heightening the will to power of Black people, Carmichael proposes the organization of independent political groups and independent consumer and producers’ cooperatives. Still unstructured, Black Power as a program is reflected in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization which is attempting to take over key county offices in the November 8th election. As a program, Black Power invites Black people to assume autonomy in the Black community. What Carmichael suggests is that Black people invoke the power of the unified Black community as a counterpoise to the authority of the white community. ‘We’ve got to stand up on our feet and control the programs and resources of the Black community….’

“Black Power is not an end but a means to the transformation of American society. Carmichael and the more sophisticated SNCC theorists contend that Black people embody the most advanced social and democratic interests in America. Power exercised in their name would therefore be power exercised, not for racial ends but for the most advanced social interests of the day—decent housing, decent jobs, and democratic decision-making.

“Black Power is a call, perhaps the last call, to the Black middle-class to come home. It is a demand that the Black haves make common cause with the Black have-nots so that all Blacks, haves and have-nots, can have more. It is a demand that the Black middle class stop thinking of themselves and stop loving themselves as special Negroes so they can transform themselves into the people and through the people into free individuals in the midst of all the rest.

“Black Power is also a call from home to black intellectuals. ‘Black intellectuals,’ says Carmichael, ‘must embody our culture. They must stop running away from our culture. We are not culturally deprived.’”[4]

C.  “The Berkeley Speech”

Stokely Carmichael‘s first major address on Black Power
held at the University of California, Berkeley, Fall, 1966

During the year of his chairmanship, (1966-67) Carmichael, SNCC officers,  SNCC’s Campus Travel program and a number of surrogates crisscrossed the country speaking to hundreds at major universities, HBCUs, community organizations, churches and special  convenings that provided  an introduction to Black Power.   Perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of Black Power was delivered to the students at the University of California at Berkeley in Fall, 1966,  written in collaboration with SNCC staffers. 


[1] The title was later shortened to Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.

[2] Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Random House, 1967; Stokely Carmichael, Stokely Speaks:  From Black Power to Pan Africanism, New York: Random House, 1971; Stokely Carmichael and Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael. New York: Scribner, 2003.

[3] Excerpts from the essay “Toward Black Liberation” were published in the Autumn 1966 edition of The Manchester Review. SNCC later published the full essay, which can be found on CRMVETS website at https://www.crmvet.org/info/stokely2.pdf.

[4] Lerone Bennett, “Stokely Carmichael: Architect of Black Power”, Ebony, Sept. 1966. pp 26-28.