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How Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers Changed the Civil Rights Movement

Much of what's happening in American race relations traces back to 1966, the year the Black Panthers were formed.

Journalist Mark Whitaker says that much of what's happening in American race relations today traces back to 1966, the year when the Black Panthers were founded and the Black Power movement took full form. It's also the year when Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and challenged the tactic of non-violence.

Whitaker examines the pivotal year in his new book, Saying It Loud: 1966 — The Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement. Whitaker notes that for years the rallying cry of the civil rights movement had been "Freedom now!" But, he says, on June 16, 1966, Carmichael ushered in a new call to arms — "Black Power!" — during a rally in Greenwood, Miss.

"The next day [the chant] gets reported by the Associated Press," Whitaker says. "The story gets picked up in 200 newspapers around the country, and all of a sudden, everybody's talking about Black Power."

Whitaker writes that it wasn't just the language of the civil rights movement that changed in 1966. There was also an "awakening of Black consciousness on a cultural level," he says. "It was really the year when Afros took off, when people started wearing dashikis, where a lot of young Blacks said, 'We don't want to be called Negroes anymore.'"

There was also a notable shift away from integration, Whitaker says. Carmichael advocated for Black people to create their own political party and to elect their own officials. As the leader of the SNCC, he expelled the group's white members, leading to a drop in the group's fundraising and political clout. All of this, Whitaker says, laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement — including the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California in 1966 and George Wallace's presidential run in 1968.

"A big lesson of 1966 is, beware of the potential backlash," Whitaker says. "I was writing this book in 2020 in the midst of all the marches that summer. ... I see what happened in 1966 and what happened in 1966 tells me that there is going to be hell to pay. There's going to be a big backlash to what looks like all this progress in 2020. And sure enough, that's what we're living with right now."