Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Peniel E. Joseph

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432 Pages



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A Washington Post Best Book of the YearA Finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize
A New York Amsterdam News Best Book of the Year

With the rallying cry of "Black Power!" in 1966, a group of civil rights activists including Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton turned their backs on Martin Luther King Jr.'s pacifism and pioneered a radical new approach to the fight for equality. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour is a history of the storied group of men and women who would become American icons of the struggle for racial equality.

Peniel E. Joseph introduces a cast of historical characters that includes William Worthy, the globe-trotting foreign correspondent; Albert Cleage, the radical clergyman from Detroit; James Baldwin, the novelist whose essays came to distill the very essence of American racial life; and Malcolm X, the common denominator who united black radicals from far-flung corners of the nation–and, over time, the world. On virtually every single page, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour uncovers buried intimacies of the larger postwar freedom struggle.

With a novelist's eye for detail, Joseph follows Malcolm X from urban street corners to Ghanaian universities to examine his relationship with local activists, introducing us to a world where black militants waged political war in urban settings far from the national spotlight. A detailed narrative of the Meredith March reveals connections between Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, while its aftermath uncovers a federal intelligence bureaucracy intent on neutralizing the Black Power movement's most charismatic spokesman.

From the domestic and international shockwaves of 1968 through the events leading up to Huey P. Newton's murder trial and the Black Panther Party's short-lived alliance with SNCC, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour builds to Black Power's apex in the early 1970s. The lives of Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, black nationalist poet turned activist Amiri Baraka, and Angela Davis are chronicled against the backdrop of growing waves of domestic insurrection, including violent urban unrest and campus radicalism.

Drawing on original archival research and extensive oral histories, including dozens of new interviews, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour vividly reveals the way in which Black Power redefined black identity and culture and in the process redrew the landscape of American race relations.


Praise for Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour

"Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour weaves an amazing tapestry of the black freedom movement . . . We now have a single work that can be used in college courses to examine the full scope of the black freedom struggle, not just in the United States, but from a global perspective . . . This is a work of historical investigation at its finest."—Felix L. Armfield, The Journal of African American History

"Peniel E. Joseph's sweeping book . . . expands our understanding of the post-World War II black freedom struggle and offers a look at the black radical movement overlapping and intersecting with the better-known and more mainstream civil rights movement. In the process, Joseph makes a significant contribution to the growing body of scholarship that is effectively challenging the traditional (and simplistic) notion of good 1960s/bad 1960s, civil rights to black power paradigm."—Emilye Crosby, The American Historical Review

"The title of this new, multifaceted, deceptively fast-moving ‘narrative' (really, an account and an analysis) of one of the most explosive, if still misunderstood, eras in American history, is appropriately complex . . . Joseph's Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour seeks broad historical ground, in space, subject matter, and most especially historiography. For the first time, arguably, a historian has taken on Black Power—as a movement and as an era—within an explicitly historical framework. The result is a strikingly ambitious work . . . Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour represents an achievement that renders Black Power a movement and an era that historians can no longer afford to ignore."Reviews in American History

"Joseph's ambitious new study is the most visible example of an explosion of literature on black power and black self-defense during the civil rights era. Challenging received wisdom and, especially, traditional civil rights periodization, Joseph presents the fullest treatment to date of the black power movement. Tracing it back to the 1950s and the rise of the Nation of Islam as embodied in Malcolm X, often perceived as the radical foil to Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph shows how the nascent black power movement preached self-empowerment rather than integration, demanded pride rather than brotherhood, and called for rigorous defense rather than nonviolence. Joseph shows how the fiercely independent Stokely Carmichael was among the first leaders from within the traditional movement to bring about a more radical focus to black demands for freedom. It was Carmichael who instigated the first 'Black Power' chants, to the dismay of King and much of the movement, during a 1966 march in Mississippi. Joseph shows how within just a few years 'Black Power' went from a slogan in search of a movement to a dominant, if misunderstood, strain of black political activism. Joseph's book will not provide the last word on Black Power, but it is arguably the most vital contribution to date on what is still one of the most misunderstood phenomena in American history."Derek Catsam, Virginia Quarterly Review

"Peniel E. Joseph, a talented young historian . . . has finally taken us beyond the politics of memory, mining virtually every available archive and printed source relevant to the Black Power saga. The result is an engaging . . . revisionist narrative that reveals a hidden world of black intellectual ferment and purposeful political organizing."—The Washington Post

"Once in a while a book comes along that projects the spirit of an era, its zeitgeist; this is one of them. Skillfully woven together in a vibrant and expressive prose . . . Anyone interested in 20th-century American history and politics should read this book."—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Professor Joseph . . . gives us a thorough, highly readable understanding of the underlying intellectual currents and players that shaped the actions and thoughts of men like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale."—Fred Beauford, Black Issues Book Review

"For those interested in the evolution of Black Power, this seminal study is a must-read. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour vividly captures the essence of Black Power, challenges narrow interpretations of it, stimulates intellectual debate, and enhances an understanding of a movement that was widely misunderstood."—Dwayne Mack, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society

"By drawing on archival histories and oral histories, Joseph moves beyond slogans and symbols to provide a nuanced, detailed study of the Black Power movement in the U.S. He covers not only the major events and players but also the complicated negotiations between unlikely allies and the participatiopn of unknown men and women committed to the cause. Joseph's ability to situate the Black Power movement in a global context gives an added dimension to this valuable contribution to scholarship about the struggle for civil rights."—Reference and Research Book News

"Offers a wonderful opportunity to expand the scope of the famous movement and incorporate the little known events and social history that led to the Black Power Movement. Joseph's addition to the historical record of African American Studies is of significant importance. The leading figures bounce off the page and the reader experiences historical crises that bordered between struggle and hope. More importantly, this study adds to the growing record of remembrance and study during this pivotal time in African Americans and America's history."—Edward L. Robinson, California State University-Fullerton

"Joseph provides such a rich history and analysis that anyone reading it will immediately want to challenge the traditional curriculum which portrays the Black Power Movement as the evil twin of the Civil Rights Movement while over simplifying the Civil Rights Movement and treating the Black Power Movement as 'too hot to touch.' Joseph provides a complex and engaging picture of both movements, and the inseparable relationship between the two. He shatters many of the assumptions about the Black Power Movement, including when it began, its relationship to electoral politics, the range of key figures, and international relations."—Deborah Menkart, Executive Director, TeachingForChange.org

"The best historical synthesis of Black Power to date."—Harper's

"Informative and elegant . . . skillfully carries the reader across time and space . . . from Harlem to the rural south, Detroit to Los Angeles, Cuba to Ghana."—Philadelphia Weekly

"The writing is nimble . . . The author is often willing to face the more discreditable facts about the movement, giving the book a tough-mindedness necessary for coming to terms with the past."—Newsday

"As an undergraduate, Dr. Peniel E. Joseph had journalism aspirations. Although he chose an academic path instead, he is indeed living that dream of storytelling as well as feeding his lifelong curiosity about history. Last year's publication of his first book is proof of that. His narrative, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour, has gained praise from The Washington Post and other major reviewers. Midnight Hour is a reassessment of the Black Power movement, examining iconic figures as well as little-known ones with a novelist's eye for detail."—Lydia Lum, Diverse: Issues In Higher Education

"In his new book Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour, Peniel Joseph has woven together many different expressions and strands of this politically important moment in U.S. history . . . Joseph's book is a great introduction into this very important and sometimes marginalized period of the 1960s."—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Socialist Worker

"During the last two decades, a number of important studies have appeared examining the Civil Rights Movement from 1945 through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Few historians, however, have provided a narrative for the ten years that followed. Joseph provides the missing narrative. In 11 chapters, the author highlights the major events, personalities, and controversies that characterized the movement, from CBS's coverage of the Nation of Islam in 1959 to the televised coverage of the National Black Political Convention held in Gary, IN, in 1972 . . . Recommended."—D. O. Cullen, Collin County Community College District, Choice

"For historians and social scientists alike, this book should play a significant role in the ongoing reevaluation of a transformative social movement, one that re-shaped our political life, our academic institutions, and youth culture, here and abroad."—Charles Payne, Contemporary Sociology

"Peniel E. Joseph carefully escorts readers through a written history that is as rich as it is complete, and is as complete as it is complicated . . . A thorough resource, readers will refer (and scholars will defer) to Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour."—Nicole Sealey, Mosaic Magazine

"The book is remarkably well researched and documented and provides a strong basis for further reading and discussion of the era. Joseph admirably strives to incorporate many strands of Black thought and activism circulating and competing during this period....His work adds new energy to an important period in U.S. Black history, opening points of entry from which to bring new readers to the history of Black Power."—Rachel Herzing, Left Turn

"Scholar Peniel Joseph provides such a rich history and analysis that anyone reading this book will immediately want to challenge the wrong-headed, yet widespread, good-activists/bad-activists stereotype. Joseph provides a complex and engaging picture of both movements and the inseparable relationship between the two."—Rethinking Schools

"Peniel E. Joseph, one of the most talented and refreshing historians of our time, has impressively achieved the near impossible—managed the rather unwieldy history of the Black Power Movement. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour delivers the reader inside the domestic and global reverberations of the Black Power Movement in painstaking, meticulous detail. Joseph's work accurately situates the intellectual and purposeful protest of the Black Power Movement and black power ideology within the larger debates on civil rights progressing American and international history. Insightful, informative, and interdisciplinary,Waiting begs for attention in the university classroom, and is tailor-made for students at all levels of learning and in all disciplines. Students are especially attracted to the richly woven tapestry of characters, ideology, and international events of one of the world's most important struggles for racial equality. Simply put, Waiting is a brilliant, eloquent, and balanced exposition on Civil Rights and Black Power in post-war America. Its versatility allows for use as either a primary or supplemental text but, nonetheless, is required reading for any serious study of race, class, and gender in the struggle for black equality."—Donald F. Tibbs, J.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Civil Rights and Justice, Southern University Law Center

"Within the pages of Waiting 'Til The Midnight Hour a journey in chronological reverence is mapped out with such clarity that students of history, as well as those interested in the tenacity of the human spirit, will not be able to raise their gaze from its pages. Dr. Joseph presents the Black Power Movement with all the passion of the era. His tone and pace not only immerses the reader into the not so distant past, but will cause a rattling in the back of the mind. Write On Brother Peniel, Write On!—Gregory M. Singer, Instructor, Hofstra University, and Author of Poeartistry

"Insightful, provocative and engaging, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour is tailor made for classroom use in teaching the Civil Rights, Black Power, and, indeed, twentieth century American history. The book's eloquent, balanced, and brilliant examination of Civil Rights and Black Power in post-war America inspired my students to think critically about issues of race, class and gender as they relate to the struggle for Black equality and American democracy. Students especially appreciated the richly woven narrative which allowed them to delve more deeply into the politics and personalities that shaped the civil rights and black power eras, which otherwise would not have been possible in a one semester course. All of this makes Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour an outstanding and indispensible classroom reading, either as a primary or supplemental text, especially for instructors eager to generate debate and discussion."—Dr. Yohuru Williams, Associate Professor of History and Co-Director of the Black Studies Program, Fairfield University

"In writing this wise and dazzling display of literary elegance and expert excavation, Peniel Joseph has vaulted into the front ranks of interpreters of this nation's most explosive era: the 1960s."—Gerald Horne, Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica

"With rigorous scholarship, Peniel E. Joseph has done a great service toward the understanding of this complex history, enabling the spirit of those times to reach into the present through the voices of those who participated."—Lewis R. Gordon, Laura H. Carnell Professor, Temple University, and Coeditor of Not Only the Master's Tools and A Companion to African-American Studies

"The challenge in writing a history of Black Power rests in negotiating a maze of political, social, and economic forces, balancing the interplay of local, national, and international events, respecting the influence of big and small actors, and appreciating the rich intellectual inheritance that informed this movement. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour tells this story with sensitivity to the connection between the smallest historical detail and the broad sweep of black struggle."—Craig Steven Wilder, Professor of History, Dartmouth College, and author of In The Company of Black Men

"From Malcolm X's Harlem, through Stokely Carmichael's Mississippi, to the San Francisco of Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour is a mesmerizing journey through the radical wing of America's civil rights revolution. In vivid, moving prose Peniel Joseph re-creates the fierce passion and prophetic anger that made Black Power one of the nation's most explosive political movements."—Kevin Boyle, Professor of History, Ohio State University, and author of the National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

"This fresh, powerful, and passionate history captures the complexity and reveals the often misunderstood character and impact of the Black Power movement. Wide in scope and richly researched, it complements more familiar studies of civil rights with a sympathetic account of the politics of culture, identity, and pride."—Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University, and author of When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America

"Not since Clayborne Carson's In Struggle over two decades ago have I read such a rich, theoretically grounded narrative of the origins and evolution of the Black Freedom movement. Peniel Joseph's Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour marks the dawn of a new black narrative history: nuanced, deeply researched, and brilliantly insightful. Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour will become a new standard interpretation of black political culture in the 1960s."—Manning Marable, Professor of Public Affairs, History and African-American Studies, Columbia University, and author of Living Black History

"Eloquent and scenic, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour has just the sweep, force, and drama appropriate to its subject, the foundations and the course of Black Power. At home with discussing great leaders in the context of the mass activity that made their history making possible, the book moves—as the movement itself did in its best moments—easily and aptly back and forth between North and South, the local and the global, the political and popular."—David Roediger, Kendrick C. Babcock Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and author of Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White

"Peniel Joseph takes us beyond the simplistic and superficial treatments of the Black Power movement to present that movement in all its complexity, and in its historical context. It is a dramatic story, carefully researched, and deserving of our attention."—Howard Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Boston University, and author of A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present

"Peniel Joseph represents the best of a new generation of scholars whose work will substantially revise our understanding of the Black Freedom Movement. Provocative and masterfully written, Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour not only reveals the radical roots of Black Power but places the key activists and struggles within a global framework. It is one of those critically important books that will be read and debated for many years to come."—Robin D. G. Kelley, William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies, Columbia University, and author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

"The rise, fall and legacy of the Black Power movement, traced from its roots in 1950s Harlem through its explosion and fadeout in the following two decades. In his well-paced debut, Joseph gets beyond Black Power symbolism—afros, shades, black-gloved fists raised in the air—to examine the movement's origins, ideologies and key players. As he tells it, Black Power sprang from the intellectual tumult in northern cities like New York and Detroit, where writers and activists such as James Baldwin and Malcolm X sought to define a new, more assertive African-American identity at the same time that Martin Luther King Jr. was leading marches and sit-ins in the South. This new identity, based on black pride and awareness of history, was linked to world events such as the Cuban revolution and Ghanaian independence. As the civil-rights movement won landmark legislative victories, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act, African-Americans split on how to push toward full political and economic equality. In 1966, the young activist Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase 'Black Power,' calling for self-sufficiency and distancing himself from King's nonviolent approach. With the Vietnam war raging and American society in turmoil, race-related violence broke out in dozens of U.S. cities. This mayhem, combined with the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, fueled the rise of the Black Panthers, a militant group eventually done in by the FBI and its own poor leadership. By the 1970s, the movement's energy had splintered into other efforts, such as abortion rights, women's rights and school desegregation. Many people today, Joseph writes, associate Black Power solely with gun-toting revolutionaries. He believes it should be recognized for fostering among African-Americans an assertive identity and cultural pride. Vividly illuminates the personalities and politics of a turbulent time."—Kirkus Reviews

"Joseph . . . surveys the full geographic and political panorama of the black power movement . . . [He gives] a more complete overview of this era."—Vernon Ford, Booklist

"Joseph offers an eloquent and accessible history of the large-scale political developments that shaped the course of the Black Power movement . . . Enthusiastically recommended."—Emily-Jane Dawson, Library Journal

"Sure to prove indispensable for the study of Black Power."—Herb Boyd, The Black World Today (tbwt.org)

"For those who don't know this history, this book is a great narrative, and it is especially important for the hip hop generation to understand that Black Power was a movement of young people . . . prisoners and poets, all dedicated to the dream of freedom and power, Black Power."—Marvin X, ChickenBones: A Journal

"Sweeping . . . nuanced. This is the first comprehensive history of the American Black Power movement, and Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour is a solid important book."—Rebeccah Oppenheimer, Columbia Flier

"Waiting Til the Midnight Hour is . . . filled with serious scholarship presented in a manner that makes the book a real page-turner as well. I coudn't put it down and recommend it highly."—Michael B. Moore, AfricanAmerica.org

"By maintaining a deft balance of engaging prose and analytical rigor, he proves a first-rate interpreter of Black Power's rise and fall. Moreover, given the prodigious research he has conducted (the extensive endnotes and bibliography, which encompass almost seventy pages of the book, are worth the price of admission alone), it must be said that Joseph's talents of synthesis are not only commendable but also remarkable. And in leaving almost no stone unturned in pursuing the full arc of the Black Power saga, Joseph provides a valuable resource for both teaching and future scholarship."—Douglas Sherry, H-NET

"This accessible survey looks at 'the murky depths of a movement that paralleled, and at times overlapped, the heroic civil rights era,' beginning in the late 1950s, with the rise of the Black Muslims, and ending in 1975. Joseph, who teaches Africana studies at SUNY-Stony Brook, brings to light less-known characters like the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. of Detroit, who helped organize the 1963 Walk for Freedom a month before the March on Washington, as well as fresh judgments on figures like Malcolm X, 'black America's prosecuting attorney.' He analyzes the negative media coverage of Black Power, offers a discerning take on Carmichael and Charles Hamilton's 1967 book, Black Power, and recounts the emergence of the Black Arts movement. The Black Panthers also get consistent attention, in rise and decline. Drawing on a rich set of sources, including interviews and oral histories, the book also illuminates flash points in Newark, N.J.; Oakland, Calif.; and the Sixth Pan-African Congress in Dar es Salaam in 1974 . . . [A] good introduction to the topic."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Peniel E. Joseph

  • Peniel E. Joseph teaches in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. The recipient of fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Ford Foundation, his work has appeared in Souls, New Formations, and The Black Scholar, and he is editor of a forthcoming anthology entitled The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He can be reached online at www.penielejoseph.com.