In June 1966, when radicalized SNCC kid Stokely Carmichael took the microphone away from Martin Luther King Jr. with his call for black power, he captured the changing tone of the 1960s. That same summer and into the fall, the Beatles came out against the war; the Velvet Underground were in the studio recording "Heroin"; NOW was founded; The East Village Other kicked off the underground press movement; and LSD guru Timothy Leary gave a speech in New York City urging people to "turn on, tune in, drop out." And in October of '66, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale took Carmichael up on his call and founded the Black Panther Party.
Carmichael's "black power," while a rich and philosophically nuanced concept, was also an emotionally charged, simple bumper-sticker phrase, ready for the taking.
As the civil rights movement turned into the black-power movement, the question became: "Where would it go from here?" Sadly, like every other irrepressible tidal wave that roared up in that era, it landed with an unwieldy, destructive force. The following three years would be high profile and dramatic, but at heart, they would be splintered, unproductive, and silly.
I don't think it was contemporary documentarians Howard Alk and Mike Gray's intention to offer up exhibit A in the case that the late '60s were a simple-minded machismo parade of silly charlatans, but this loose, raw, practically unedited footage proves that the "liberation" "bad motherfucker" "power to the people" anti-"pig" rhetoric was grating, dim-witted nonsense.
Whether it's a young black woman boasting that she'll "have my rifle on one arm" (as she picks one up) "and my baby on the other, and I'll fight for what's mine," or Bobby Seale himself on stage rhyming (kinda) about organizing, the bubble-gum Marxism is interminable.
There's no doubt America's cities were radicalized beyond belief—guns, mobs, and fluency in class analysis were as commonplace then as Starbucks is today—and the footage is certainly a valuable artifact, proof that people are not exaggerating when they talk about the radical late '60s. But watching speech after speech of self-righteous Stokely wannabes does more to bore the viewer than it does to build interest in the era.
Luckily, there is a gem tucked away in this release of The Murder of Fred Hampton: a seven-minute short (by the same filmmakers) about the Cicero fair-housing march in the fall of 1966. Cicero was an intractably segregated white suburb of Chicago, and MLK organi zed perhaps his last germane campaign there. The footage is simple, capturing the dramatic dynamic of protesters, troops, and counterprotesters as the camera follows a civil rights march, including a cheerful guy with a homemade "Black Power" T-shirt, as they file by under heavy protection from armed troops. Under a barrage from angry white hecklers ("your mother is a whore," "take a bath before you come next time," "go back to the zoo," and "2-4-6-8 we don't want to integrate"), it's the armed troops who seem shaken.