Achieving major national influence through the Nation of Islam (NOI) and the Black Power movement of the 1960s, proponents of black nationalism advocated economic self-sufficiency, race pride for African Americans, and black separatism. Reacting against white racial prejudice and critical of the gap between American democratic ideals and the reality of segregation and discrimination in America, in the 1960s black nationalists criticized the methods of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other organizations that sought to reform American society through nonviolent interracial activism. In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King described himself as standing between the forces of complacency and the “hatred and despair of the black nationalist” (King, 90).
The historical roots of black nationalism can be traced back to nineteenth-century African American leaders such as abolitionist Martin Delany, who advocated the emigration of northern free blacks to Africa, where they would settle and assist native Africans in nation-building. Delany believed that this development would also uplift the status and condition of African Americans who remained, calling them “a nation within a nation … really a broken people” (Painter, “Martin R. Delany”).
Twentieth-century black nationalism was greatly influenced by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States who founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. In an essay titled “The Future as I See It,” Garvey insisted that the UNIA was “organized for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically.” Garvey and the UNIA also promoted black emigration to Africa as a program of “national independence, an independence so strong as to enable us to rout others if they attempt to interfere with us” (“Speech by Marcus Garvey”). One of the UNIA’s main efforts was to establish black-owned businesses, the best known being the Black Star Line, a firm that planned to transport people and goods to Africa. Although 35,000 investors flocked to buy five-dollar shares of Black Star Line stock, the shipping firm and the UNIA’s other commercial ventures failed. Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1923 and eventually deported, but he remained a heroic figure to many future black nationalists.
During the economic depression of the 1930s, Farrad Muhammad, a Detroit peddler, founded another significant organization of black nationalists, the NOI. The NOI sought to develop an intentionally separate and economically self-sufficient black community governed by a revised version of the Muslim faith. Muhammad’s claim that whites were “blue-eyed devils” seeking to oppress blacks made him a controversial figure. When Farrad Muhammad disappeared in 1934 after various factions in the NOI battled for dominance, his disciple Elijah Muhammad became the sect’s leader.
By the late 1950s NOI minister Malcolm X had emerged as the group’s most dynamic and popular spokesperson. Early on, Malcolm X’s oratory combined calls for racial independence with criticisms of mainstream civil rights leaders who cooperated with whites. In his November 1963 speech “Message to the Grass Roots,” Malcolm X defined land as “the basis of freedom, justice and equality,” and declared: “A revolutionary wants land so he can set up his own nation, an independent nation. These Negroes aren’t asking for any nation—they’re trying to crawl back on the plantation… If you’re afraid of black nationalism, you’re afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism” (Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots,” 9–10).
Following the defeat of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 and a trend of rising violence against civil rights workers and supporters, many activists became increasingly skeptical of the power of nonviolent resistance to influence the white-dominated power structure in America. Stokely Carmichael’s appointment in May 1966 as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) signaled an organizational shift toward exclusive black self-determination in SNCC’s approach to civil rights. In June 1966 Carmichael began to use the slogan “Black Power” to promote racial self-respect and increased power for blacks in economic and political realms. He asserted that the “concern for black power addresses itself directly to … the necessity to reclaim our history and our identity from the cultural terrorism and depredation of self-justifying white guilt” (Carmichael, “Toward Black Liberation”). Rather than publicly criticize black nationalists, King preferred to focus on the social forces and conditions that brought black nationalist philosophies such as “Black Power” to the fore. He called their departure from interracial cooperation in civil rights work “a response to the feeling that a real solution is hopelessly distant because of the inconsistencies, resistance and faintheartedness of those in power” (King, Where, 33).
King remained fundamentally opposed to black nationalists’ rejection of American society as irreparably unjust and to later black nationalists’ abandonment of nonviolence. Because of their view that “American society is so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is no possibility of salvation from within,” King felt black nationalist movements rejected “the one thing that keeps the fire of revolutions burning: the ever-present flame of hope” (King, Where, 44; 46).
Carmichael, “Toward Black Liberation,” Massachusetts Review 7 (Autumn 1966): 639–651.
Carson, In Struggle, 1981.
Garvey, “The Future as I See It,” in Look for Me All Around You, ed. Louis J. Parascandola, 2005.
King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait, 1964.
King, Press conference, 24 February 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
King, Where Do We Go from Here, 1967.
Lomax, When the Word Is Given, 1963.
Malcolm X, “Message to the Grass Roots,” in Malcolm X Speaks, ed. George Breitman, 1965.
Nell Irvin Painter, “Martin R. Delany: Elitism and Black Nationalism,” in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Litwack and Meier, 1991.
“Speech by Marcus Garvey,” 7 September 1921, in The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. 4, ed. Hill, Tolbert, and Forczek, 1985.