The Black Power movement was made and unmade through encounters with the criminal justice system, especially the prison. Prisons were especially central to activists’ efforts as they drew on their own experiences of confinement to indict a broader system of white supremacy. Many of the movement’s strategists, theoreticians, and foot soldiers spent time in jail or prison. For some, prison was the consequence of their organizing. For others, it was where they joined and contributed to the Black Power movement.
The urban rebellions of 1963 to 1968 were often sparked by incidents of police brutality and saw thousands of people arrested. Activists resorted to study groups, escape attempts, newspapers, and legal appeals to challenge prison as both a metaphor for oppression and an example of it. But by the mid-1970s there was growing bipartisan support for increasing the severity and length of sentences. Thus began the rise of mass incarceration that would disproportionately impact the youth who had been the base of the Black Power movement. A half century later, the interrelationship between prisons, policing, and racism remains a central example of American inequality.
-Dan Berger, University of Washington Bothell