Happy MLK Day! Ashley D. Farmer on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Power

Today, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we highlight a post written by Ashley D. Farmer, author of Remaking Black Power:  How Black Women Transformed an Era, just published by UNC Press.

Remaking Black Power by Ashley D. FarmerRemaking Black Power examines black women’s political, social, and cultural engagement with Black Power ideals and organizations. Complicating the assumption that sexism relegated black women to the margins of the movement, Ashley Farmer demonstrates how female activists fought for more inclusive understandings of Black Power and social justice by developing new ideas about black womanhood. This compelling book shows how the new tropes of womanhood that they created–the “Militant Black Domestic,” the “Revolutionary Black Woman,” and the “Third World Woman,” for instance–spurred debate among activists over the importance of women and gender to Black Power organizing, causing many of the era’s organizations and leaders to critique patriarchy and support gender equality.

This post originally ran on the blog of the National Civil Rights Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.  Established in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum is located at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Through interactive exhibits, historic collections, dynamic speakers and special events, the museum offers visitors a chance to walk through history and learn more about a tumultuous and inspiring period of change.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the post:

What Would King Do? Learning from King’s Approach to Black Power

By 1966, calls for “Black Power” electrified the nation. In the preceding year alone, black Americans had witnessed the assassination of Malcolm X, riots it Watts, the black section of Los Angeles, and the shooting of civil rights activist James Meredith, during his attempt to march from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi to promote black voter registration. This sustained violence led many black Americans to embrace “Black Power”—or calls for black community control, self-determination, and self-defense. The slogan became so popular that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. felt compelled to address it publicly. It was no secret that King did not like the phrase. In October 1966, he claimed that the slogan was “an unwise choice” that had become “dangerous and injurious.”[1] Despite this condemnation, he could not ignore the importance of Black Power to black political life. In that same speech, King also attested to the diversity and promise of the philosophy, indicating the potential of Black Power to ameliorate the dreadful socio-economic conditions impacting black lives.

King admitted that he could “not simply condemn [the] new concept,” as “this new mood ha[d] arisen from real, not imaginary causes.” The Reverend noted that the appeal of Black Power was not “limited to the few who use[d] it to justify violence.” Rather it was the manifestation of the frustration and anger of black Americans who found that the “extravagant promises” of the federal government had been had become little more than a “shattered mockery.” King was speaking of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act— both of which had failed to assure government-enforced desegregation and black voting protections. He was also attesting to the fact that “ghettos, unemployment, housing discrimination and slum schools,” still characterized black life in America. This dehumanization and degradation, King argued, had led many to embrace Black Power as “‘white power’ had left them empty handed.”[2]


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It Is Not Enough to Condemn Black Power….” October 1966. The King Center Archive, Atlanta, Georgia.

[2] Ibid.

You can read the post in its entirety here.


Ashley D. Farmer is assistant professor of history and African American studies at Boston University.  Learn more at her website, and follow her on Twitter at drashleyfarmer.