Tag Archives: Black power

Ideas of Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Expressed Through Popular Culture of the Time

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements were major ideologies of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Civil Rights movement implemented civil disobedience and direct non-violent action to achieve political and social equality and justice for blacks in America. It was a grass roots movement that originated in the south as a response to enforced segregation and Jim Crow laws. Leaders of the Civil Rights movement include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the NAACP, Fannie Lou Hamer, and members of the Bus Boycott in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders. The Civil Rights movement was successful in achieving democratic rights for blacks and challenging the absence of those rights.

The Black Power movement focused on achieving economic and political power for blacks by controlling schools, business, and other institutions. Many of the leaders of the Black Power movement rejected integration and advocated for a separate nation built on pride and recognition of black history, culture and identity. Many of the movement’s leaders were frustrated with the non-violent approach of the Civil Rights movement and advocated for a more militant approach, even calling for an armed rebellion. Some justified this by saying violence had always been used to subordinate black people in America, thus violence was necessary to achieving autonomy. Important activists include Stokley Carmichael and Black Panthers members Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Davis. The group’s ten point program clearly laid out their demands for autonomy and justice. The Black Panther style of black leather jackets, berets, sunglasses, and firearms was very distinct, and eventually found its way into popular culture.

By the 1970’s the FBI had destroyed the Black Panther organization, but the ideas had already permeated every aspect of American pop culture. Black press had always published articles and images about black issues. In the 1960’s the black press marketed black power and black pride heavily in from Afro centric advertisements to coverage of black uprisings. Other media such as Life magazine were printing articles about the riots, rebellions, revolutions, and activists. Magazines were important in disseminating the influences of black popular culture. Life magazine addressed issues of African American history, a major influence of the Black Power movement. The importance of teaching African American history was also a central to the writings of Alex Haley and celebrities like Isaac Hayes.

Questions about cultural ownership were raised when black culture left the community and was appropriated by popular culture. Album cover art for jazz and soul musicians used album art for political and cultural messages. Jimmy Smith referenced his cultural roots in a photograph of him standing in front of a traditional southern diner on his album titled Home Cooking. It recalls the teachings of Alain Locke for blacks to return to and embrace their southern heritage. James Brown promoted civil rights and black power messages in relation to biblical themes in the artwork for his album, Payback. Musicians also had strong messages in their music. Marvin Gaye’s concept album, What’s Going On, is a masterpiece. It was revolutionary for it’s time. He made it all himself. The concept grew out of him having a brother in war. Gaye sings about veterans dealing with changes. “What’s going on,” is also a good example of how African American language and culture became part of popular culture language and awareness. What’s going on?

Black Power movement had a huge impact on African American artists. There was a strong rejection of art for arts sake. Art played an important role in the black community dealing with black history and social issues relevant to the time. Graphic arts were especially useful to the Black Panther party.   Emory Douglas may be the best known artist of the black political poster. He was a revolutionary artist and the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther party from 1967-1980. He combined art and message, which he learned from Aaron Douglass and Charles White, especially from White how to use text and image. Douglas covered issues of corporate politics, public housing, political prisoners, and boycotts among other important issues of the time.

Several artists worked to recreate the stereotype of the “mammie” figure. Murray DePillars’s illustration of Aunt Jemima on the cover of pancake and waffle mix boxes lined up in front of an American flag shows her in action, wielding a spatula. Her breasts are exposed referencing the images of the personification of justice.

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