Opinion: Black Power pioneers have a message for today's movement for change

A group of teenagers carry a sign proclaiming "Black Power" during a civil rights rally in July 1966.

Mark Whitaker is the author of the forthcoming book "Saying It Loud: 1966 --The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement," along with "My Long Trip Home" and "Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance." He is the former managing editor of CNN Worldwide, Washington bureau chief for NBC News and Editor of Newsweek. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Like so many other turning points in Black history, it started with a police incident.

Mark Whitaker
In the summer of 1966, America's top civil rights leaders had descended on Mississippi for what became known as the Meredith March. They were making their way from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to carry on a solo voting rights march begun by James Meredith, the Black activist who had integrated the University of Mississippi three years earlier. Meredith had been shot by a White supremacist and hospitalized with severe bullet wounds.
    When the march reached Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael, the recently named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), got permission from a local Black school to erect sleeping tents on its grounds. But as he was helping to put up the tents, he was arrested by the local White police chief, known as "Buff" Hammond, and dragged to the local jail.
      As Carmichael awaited bail that afternoon, he counted the number of times —27—that he had been imprisoned in the South since joining SNCC as a Howard University undergraduate. By the time he was released, he was primed to adopt a defiant new slogan that a SNCC comrade, Willie Ricks, had been testing in small churches along the route.
        Civil rights leaders Floyd B. McKissick, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael during march through Mississippi to encourage voter registration.
        Some 500 marchers and local youth had gathered on the dusty baseball field for a nighttime rally, and as Carmichael climbed onto the back of a truck with generator-powered lights below, he looked as though he had stepped onto a floodlit stage. "We've been saying 'Freedom Now' for six years and we ain't got nothing," Carmichael shouted. "What we're going to start saying now is 'Black Power'!"
        "Black Power!" the crowd shouted back. "We want Black Power!" Carmichael cried again, five times in all. "Black Power!" the crowd screamed back each time.
          The next day, a short Associated Press story describing the scene was picked up by more than 200 newspapers across America. Overnight, the Black Power Movement was born.
          As Black History Month begins, we are witnessing a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and calls for police and other reforms in the wake of the fatal police beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols in Memphis. But as I discovered in reporting a book on the birth of the Black Power Movement, the roots of much of what is happening in American race relations today trace back to that pivotal year of 1966.
          Organizers protest in front of the Memphis Police Department headquarters Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023.
          From the start, the media assumed the worst about the Black Power slogan. Was Carmichael calling for "taking power by force and violence—by the overthrow?" Martin Agronsky, the host of Face the Nation, prodded when Carmichael was booked for his first national TV appearance three days after the Greenwood speech.
          In fact, the initial aims of the Black Power Movement born in 1966 were relatively modest—and represented attempts by an impatient generation of Black youth to address systemic problems that persisted even after the legislative gains won by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and previous Black leaders.
          Despite the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Carmichael recognized that registration alone wouldn't be enough to protect poor Blacks in the Deep South, where police allowed the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize with impunity. So he had spent the previous year organizing Blacks in backwater Lowndes County, Alabama to form a new independent political party that could elect candidates for sheriff and other local offices, with a panther symbol that would be recognized by poor sharecroppers who couldn't read.
          In the fall of 1966, two part-time Black community college students in Oakland, California borrowed that same striking logo to create the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Although Huey Newton and Bobby Seale drafted a sweeping list of demands they called the "Ten Point Program," they also were focused primarily on the issue of police violence in Black communities.
          When the Panthers first donned their famous leather jackets and berets and posed with rifles and handguns, it was to advertise their plan to take advantage of California's "open carry" gun laws to create armed civilian patrols to monitor the Oakland police.
          As if to prove the Panthers' point, however, the summer of 1966 brought a series of clashes between police and urban Blacks that set off riots in Chicago, Atlanta and the San Francisco neighborhood of Hunters Point. In the mind of the White public, those uprisings became conflated with the "Black Power" slogan and drove a sharp drop in White support for the entire civil rights agenda. In a Newsweek poll, Whites suddenly opposed even nonviolent Black protest by more than two-to-one.
          When King tried to bring his peaceful playbook to Chicago, with a focus on housing, he encountered a White counterattack as vicious as anything he had witnessed in the South. In the 1966 midterms elections, a White "backlash vote" helped elect Ronald Reagan to the statehouse in California and propelled a rightward swing that set the stage for Richard Nixon's law-and-order campaign two years later.
          As this pattern of Black unrest and White backlash continued, the media caricature of Black Power gradually became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Carmichael grew more outrageous in his rhetoric, leading one New Yorker writer to wonder if he was just a "put-on" artist.