From ‘Dark Days’ to ‘Bright Nights,’ Reexamining the Civil Rights Era

January 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In observance of Martin Luther King Day, Ray Suarez speaks with historian Peniel Joseph about his new book "Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama."

RAY SUAREZ: Finally, on this Martin Luther King Day, a look at a movement the civil rights era sparked.

“Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama” is the new book by Peniel Joseph, professor of history at Tufts University and a “NewsHour” regular.

I spoke with him earlier in the historic U Street Corridor of Washington, D.C., at the African-American Civil War Museum.

Peniel Joseph, welcome back to the program.

PENIEL JOSEPH, author, “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama”: Thank you for having me.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s begin with the phrase black power. When did it first gain currency, and who was it who was using it?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, it’s a phrase coming out of the 1960s and really coming out of the civil rights era.

Stokely Carmichael was a civil rights activist who first used the term in Greenwood, Mississippi, on June 16, 1966. And for Carmichael, he really was referring to political self-determination. He felt that black people needed political, social, economic self-determination if they were going to really exercise their democratic rights in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: But didn’t that phrase also carry a kind of electric charge, that it elicited a reaction not only from black people, but from white Americans as well?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely.

As soon as Carmichael says it, it becomes a racial controversy. It becomes a national controversy. It’s going to be perceived as fomenting violence, as anti-white, as really the opposite of civil rights and Dr. King’s dream of a beloved community.

RAY SUAREZ: I know how people heard it. What did Stokely Carmichael mean when he used the phrase black power?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, Carmichael was really one of the few civil rights activists who becomes a black power militant. So, Carmichael had been a grassroots organizer in Mississippi and Alabama. And for him, black power meant actually exercising the voting rights and exercising the citizenship rights that he had struggled to organize, along with many other civil rights activists, during the first half of the 1960s.

So, it meant black elected officials. It meant black political leaders, but it also meant community control of schools. It meant a different definition of black identity. Before this period, African- Americans were really called Negroes or referred to as people of color.

It’s after the black power period that they’re referred to as black or Afro-American, and, by the 1980s, African-American.

RAY SUAREZ: The book reminds us of parts of this story that we sometimes forget, because the history of this era gets smoothed over.

Weren’t there many strands of opinion about how to proceed, what the best approach was, what the tactics were to achieve black liberation?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely.

When we think about our civil rights history and the history of the 1960s and ’70s, in a way, we flatten that story to a story about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, the Voting Rights Act, and the “I Have a Dream” speech.

People like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael added their voices to that period of time. And they were really voices of trying to transform American democracy, but in militant and, at times, combative ways.

RAY SUAREZ: So, how do you take us, as a narrator, from the foment of the ’60s to the election of Barack Obama?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, when we think about Obama, Obama is very, very important. He’s usually connected to the civil rights movement. And Obama himself talked about the Joshua generation and said that his generation was the generation after the Moses generation, which was the King generation.

One of the things I argue is that, when we look at Barack Obama, he grew up — politically, at least — in Chicago. And that’s Harold Washington’s city. And Harold Washington was the first black mayor of Chicago, elected in 1983.

So, against the conservative backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s America in the1980s, there are really rays of light in Harold Washington’s Chicago, which inspires Jesse Jackson to run for president in 1984 and ’88. So, Chicago and Jesse Jackson really impact the country’s evolution from black power to Barack Obama.

The Jackson campaign is very interesting one, because it’s those campaigns that change the Democratic Party’s primary rules to proportional representation from a winner-take-all system. Without the Jackson campaigns, Hillary Clinton would have been the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2008.

RAY SUAREZ: The Chicago that schools Barack Obama in politics is not only Harold Washington’s Chicago. It’s also Jesse Jackson’s Chicago. It’s Louis Farrakhan’s Chicago, the Johnson family of “Ebony” and “Jet” magazine.

Aren’t a lot of different ways of being black in America proposed during this era?

PENIEL JOSEPH: Absolutely.

Another person in Chicago that is, is Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And Barack Obama is in his Trinity United Church for 20 years. And I think that’s a very interesting example of Johnson’s Chicago, Louis Farrakhan’s Chicago, Jeremiah Wright’s Chicago.

Obama takes all that in. He doesn’t embrace all aspects of it, but he takes it all in and becomes more rooted in African-American culture than at any other time in his life. So, by the time we see him on stage as a candidate in 2008, even his very deliverance of speeches at black churches, the way in which he walks — sometimes, people in the African-American community will say that Obama walks with a swagger — all that is from Chicago and his time — his time in Chicago.

And, really, what’s interesting is that it’s the black power movement’s self-determination to get black faces in higher places that really leads Obama to even try to run for president, because, remember, Obama initially is not embraced by the civil rights generation, people like John Lewis, Vernon Jordan, Andy Young. These are all people who were part of that civil rights movement, but didn’t think the country was prepared to elect an African-American president.

So, in a way, when we think about black power and Barack Obama, Obama really reflects a kind of moderate and pragmatic strain of that movement.

RAY SUAREZ: You cover this in the book, but isn’t there sort of a central argument that goes all the way back to the 19th century, whether you’re talking about Booker T. Washington, or WEB Du Bois, or Marcus Garvey, or Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, whether black Americans ask for their freedom, or whether they seize it and make it theirs?

And where does Barack Obama fit in that age-old debate?

PENIEL JOSEPH: I think he has one foot in both camps, which is what makes him so interesting and so unique, because, on one level, his whole rhetorical embrace of democracy during the campaign, it’s firmly rooted in this notion of acceptance and waiting and patience.

But, on another level, being a junior senator from Illinois and saying you’re going to throw your hat in the ring and aggressively pursue the presidency is rooted in that other, really much more ambitious self-determination camp, to try and just really take the American dream and claim it and own it, and utilize the power of the highest office in the land to try to transform American democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Joseph, good to see you.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.