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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Blacks Define Themselves

1964-1972

"We've been brainwashed. Everything good is supposed to be white... Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he's white... Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devils food cake is chocolate."
—Muhammad Ali, boxer

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African Americans increasingly reject white cultural standards and authority, and champion their own cultures and consciousness. The Afro hairstyle becomes a black standard of beauty, and a powerful symbol. The phrase "Black Power," now a part of African American culture, indicates rising interest and pride in African heritage. A black arts movement arises, of which poet Amiri Baraka is a prime mover.

Popular boxer Cassius Clay converts to Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, when he is drafted for Vietnam, Ali draws criticism when he refuses to serve. Banned from boxing and stripped of his title, Ali stays in the spotlight, speaking against the war.

Meanwhile, activists seek to change education and politics. At Howard University, students demand courses in black studies and culture. And in 1972, 8,000 people from 45 states meet in Gary, Indiana for a National Black Political Convention. The assembly addresses unemployment, poverty, and other issues, publishing a national agenda. In the following decade, the number of black elected officials will more than double.

Context

Other Events: 1972

Shirley Chisholm, one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, captures 152 delegates in her unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Her campaign is the first serious bid by either a woman or an African American for the presidency.

Palestinian terrorists take Israeli athletes hostage at the Munich Olympics; eleven hostages are killed.

Police catch five men burgling an office in the Watergate apartment and office complex in D.C. Reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post follow the story and the unfolding scandal, soon to be known as "Watergate," leads them to President Richard Nixon's White House.

In a diplomatic breakthrough, President Nixon visits Communist China. A few weeks later, the Chinese government sends two giant pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

As the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continues, Bobby Fischer becomes the first American world chess champion after defeating the Russian Boris Spassky.

Baseball player Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates gets his 3,000th hit; in December, en route to Nicaragua to deliver humanitarian relief following an earthquake, he is killed in a plane crash.

Press

The Chicago Defender, March 18-24, 1972

Editorial: Gary and Beyond

...The convention will map out the path that America's black electorate should follow to obtain maximum results from the consortium of white political power which far too long has held the destiny of black Americans in the palm of its hand...

...The convention must not waste time on petty, meaningless partisan politics. Our difficulties... are rooted in our failure in the past to galvanize our political strength into a solid unit of aggressive action.

We have the strength now. The black vote more than ever represents the strategic balance of power. If black leaders... can consolidate that vote, they will succeed in forcing the Democratic and Republican parties into a deeper sense of commitment and social justice...

The Gary (Indiana) Crusader, March 18, 1972

Generally Speaking

by Darnoc Redarts

...It was a surprise and yet gratifying to see so many young people as delegates. They were not afraid to speak out in protest when they felt hat the convention was following along the same lines and the two party system.

One of the states, Michigan, had 70 delegates walk out because they were unable to have their way. But as a delegate from another state said, "One state does not stop the show. Lets get on with the convention..."

...Did the convention in reality serve a useful purpose? Yes, it showed the world that black people are no longer content to sit idly by, always on the outside looking in. They said in essence either we become a part of it or we become apart from it...

The Chicago Tribune, March 19, 1972

Mini'pinions

by Jeannye Thornton

"Does the agenda passed at the recent National Black Convention reflect the views of the majority of Black people?"

...I feel the Agenda does speak for the majority, but it does not speak for all black people. No one does. There were some problems with the convention, such as the fact that they should have been more organized before it began, but otherwise it was beautiful. It was a Black Nationalists Agenda and all black people are nationalists whether they realize it or not. In that sense the agenda does speak for the majority.
--William Burchette, South Shore, Chicago

...Everybody wasn't consulted on that agenda, not even all the people who were there. The representatives from the various states didn't seem to have been totally aware of the agenda and those out here on the outside certainly had no say. I'm concerned that another convention was planned for 1976. We need them every year or at least every two years. They should be better planned and more people should know about them to be able to participate.
-- Miss Celeste Peyton, South Shore, Chicago

The Washington Post, April 5, 1972

Letter to the Editor: The Convention at Gary

...I am personally convinced that America is going to eventually be one country, extremists of both races, notwithstanding. This country was founded on one simple principle: Freedom. The America we had started building after 1954 was the road to the reason we came here initially. Well, that's not exactly true: Whites caught the boat excitedly and we were brought to the boat kicking and screaming. But now that we've tried it, we like it...

Berkeley G. Burrell
President, National Business League
Washington, D.C.

The New York Times, June 5, 1972

Editorial: The Separatist Threat

The rejection by Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, of the black separatist positions taken by the National Black Convention represents a courageous and constructive reaffirmation of an integrated America as the only rational goal...

...The danger in the current move toward separatism by some black professionals and by students on many campuses is that it abandons the integrated society. The despair and anger which often motivate such a deliberate walkout are understandable, but the consequences to the nation's future are nevertheless devastating.

The New York Times, June 22, 1972

Letter to the Editor: Voluntary Segregation and Racism

Your June 5 editorial suggests that an "integrated America" is the only rational goal for black Americans. By citing Roy Wilkins' integrationist position and his rejection of the positions taken by the National Black Political Convention, it is implied that Mr. Wilkins knows what is best for blacks.

Additionally, your commentary seeks to discredit separate black organizations and movements by comparing them to the white racist institutions and attitudes which make their existence necessary.

White Americans must learn that individuals like Mr. Wilkins can no longer assume to speak for the masses of black Americans. The National Black Convention cannot be dismissed as a small gathering of hot headed militants...

Richard E. Presha, New York
June 13, 1972

Music

Umgawa, Black Power
Songwriter: Anonymous
Performed by: improvisation by Howard University Students
Listen to the Music

When SNCC chair Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), raised the cry for "Black Power" on a Mississippi voter registration march, the concept caught fire nationally and attracted student activists at the prestigious Howard University, then known to some as the Black Harvard. In the Fall of 1966, Robin Gregory, an activist with an Afro hairstyle, campaigned to become homecoming queen. When it was announced that she had won, the overflow audience in the Howard auditorium spontaneously began chanting "Umgawa Black Power!" ("Umgawa" was a word created to sound as if it derived from the African language of Swahili.) A fellow student, Paula Giddings said, "...a chain was created. People started to march to the rhythm of Umgawa, Black Power, and there was a line that went all the way around the auditorium, and more and more people joined the line. I did too as it went around the auditorium. And finally out the door and into the streets of Washington, D.C., past the campus, and still chanting...." The chant unified and emboldened the students as they marched to its rhythm, effectively launching the black consciousness movement at Howard.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Blacks Define Themselves
Duration: 1:13 min
Watch the Video

The first clip is of a Black Power button, followed by H. Rap Brown, then Justice Minister of the Black Panther Party, discussing the coming revolution.

After images of women dancing, an African American child says that freedom is black power.

Last, Stokely Carmichael delivers his famous "Black Power" speech to a receptive audience.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Map

Black Self-Definition in Culture, Politics, and Education

  1. Harlem, New York
    April 1965
    Poet Amiri Baraka establishes the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School(BART/S) in Harlem. It will become a model for other urban arts projects across the country.
  2. Washington, D.C.
    October 1966
    Signaling a change in campus priorities, student activist Robin Gregory, is elected Homecoming Queen at Howard University -- the first ever to wear her hair in a natural Afro.
  3. Houston, Texas
    April 1967
    Boxer Muhammad Ali refuses to be drafted into the military, becoming a lighting rod for criticism -- and admiration.
  4. Brooklyn, New York
    Fall 1967
    New York's first black school superintendent establishes community control in his district, gaining more black teachers and an expanded curriculum.
  5. Gary, Indiana
    March 1972
    The National Black Political Convention meets and drafts a national agenda to improve black representation and leadership.

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