Did Black Power Birth Obama?

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In tracing the arc of black history and politics, it is easy to draw the link between Dr. King and Barack Obama. But the black power movement deserves equal credit for reshaping the face of American politics.

April 4, 2008—The 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 slaying in Memphis—provoked endless conversations about the way forward for black politics and whether it was King who truly prepared the nation to elect Barack Obama as the first black president. This year, the topic has moved beyond musings about what is possible for African Americans in the American political system, to the more controversial question: Just who deserves the credit for Obama’s decisive, historic victory?

It was one of the most provocative topics at a conference presented this week by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And though the event was convened in the days before the anniversary of the King assassination, the topic of discussion was not the civil rights movement which King so embodies, but rather the black power movement.

The symposium brought together 1968 veterans Amiri Baraka, Kathleen Cleaver, Charles Cobb Jr. and Sonia Sanchez to discuss the impact of the black power movement on America. In one of the more dynamic roundtable discussions on politics, King’s name scarcely came up. Rather, Ronald Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland and a veteran black political activist, reminded listeners that “there were two post civil rights movements.” The nonviolent, conciliatory approach that brought King martyrdom, he said, still overshadows the more confrontational forces that barricaded buildings, condemned government and radicalized thousands of blacks in the 1960s. And the more militant movement, Walters and other panelists argued convincingly, deserves as much credit for priming America for Barack Obama as the peaceful protest marches mainstream that Americans are much more comfortable embracing.

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