There is a long history of Black Power organizing in cities in the United States and around the world. While the language of Black Power is sometimes limited to a particular set of movements and organizations (such as the SNCC,  CORE,  and the Black Panthers) in a particular time (the mid‑1960s to the early 1970s), efforts for Black self-determination and political economic power have a much longer history (see, for instance, Gordon Nembhard 2014) and span a broader set of formal and informal organizations. The Movement for Black Lives’ policy platform, for instance, has calls for community control and economic self-determination which have clear echoes of this much longer past (see also Simonson and Rahman 2020). The articles in this special series by Metropolitics focus on efforts for Black political and economic power in the contemporary period, but all clearly draw upon the efforts of those who had come before.
The durability of the goal of Black community control and self-determination is a result of the consistent and persistent undermining of Black people in the larger political economy. Racial capitalism—and the state structures, practices and ideologies that govern and shape it—have, in short, generated demands for Black economic and political self-determination. But such structural injustices not only generate the demands for Black self-determination; they also act to undermine efforts to realize it—or, at a minimum, require compromises and instrumental/transactional relationships to get things done that limit the ability to realize the (utopian?) vision of Black Power. The articles in this special series all struggle, in different ways, with this inherent tension.
The vision of achieving and sustaining Black economic and political power in urban centers is often limited to what Owens, Rodriguez and Brown call “Black Municipal Leadership (BML),” which relies on electing Black leaders into positions of power and control of urban mayoral administrations, city councils, and bureaucracies (Owens et al. 2021). Following the tail end of the Great Migration and the establishment of Black electoral majorities and pluralities in major US cities, the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, pushed for Black electoral mobilization around Black mayors, council members, and school board officials. This mobilization was intended to institutionalize Black Power at scale – in ways that were not always possible with the grassroots efforts of SNCC, CORE, US,  and the BPP.  Yet with this scalar mobilization came the trade-offs of participation and integration in the racial capitalist political structure; Black-led cities found themselves constrained by fiscal insolvency, declining tax bases, and more austere state and federal governments. BML cities thus found themselves replicating the same harmful, neoliberal policies of privatization, race-to-the-bottom economic development, and public housing demolition that stood in stark contrast to the 10‑point program agenda established by the BPP in the 1960s.
This special issue is meant to descale the utopian visions of Black Power and Black Municipal Leadership to adhere to the revolutionary core of the 10‑point program in local communities in the contemporary period. There are four articles in this special series. The first, by Kimberley Johnson, examines contemporary organizing in East Palo Alto, California, which explicitly invokes the language and images of Black Power organizing in struggles over displacement and dispossession resulting from real estate pressures and technocapitalist expansion. The second, by Jay Arena, looks at the how the rhetoric of Black Power has been invoked and mobilized in the context of privatization of public schools in Newark, New Jersey. The third, by Brad Stephens, Chris Stephenson, and Max Stephenson, Jr., explores how St. Paul’s College—a recently closed historically Black college in Lawrenceville, Virginia—is being reimagined as part of the long tradition of the Black radical imagination. The fourth, by Stacey Sutton, reviews the book Soul City by Thomas Healy, about the city in rural North Carolina planned and created by Floyd McKissick, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality. The review uses this historical experience to discuss contemporary efforts for Black utopias.
We hope this series of articles will generate new conceptualizations and directions for the state of Black Power in the United States—highlighting the connections to the historical past while identifying contemporary challenges and opportunities.
Articles in this series:
- “We Are From Nairobi (#panthershit): Black Power Spatial Imaginaries in Silicon Valley”, by Kimberley S. Johnson
- “Self-Determination for Who? The Case of Ras Baraka’s Neoliberal Newark”, by John Arena
- Gordon Nembhard, Jessica. 2014. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, University Park: Penn State University Press.
- Simonson, Jocelyn and Rahman, K. Sabeel. 2020. “The Institutional Design of Community Control”, California Law Review, no. 108, pp. 101–163.
- Owens, Michael Leo; Rodriguez, Akira Drake; and Brown, Robert A. 2021. “‘Let’s Get Ready to Crumble’: Black Municipal Leadership and Public Housing Transformation in the United States”, Urban Affairs Review, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 342–372. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1078087419901299.