Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Fri, 01.29.1960

The Black Consciousness Movement, a story

The Black Consciousness Movement

*The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) is affirmed on this date in 1960.  The BCM was a grassroots anti-Apartheid activist movement that emerged in South Africa in the mid-1960s from the political vacuum created by the jailing and banning of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress leadership after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960.

The BCM represented a social movement for political consciousness.  The Black Consciousness Movement developed during the late 1960s, led by Steve Biko, Mamphela Ramphele, and Barney Pityana. During this period, which overlapped with Apartheid, the ANC had committed to an armed struggle through its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe. Still, this small guerrilla army could neither seize and hold territory in South Africa nor win significant concessions through its efforts. Apartheid leaders had banned the ANC, and although their Freedom Charter remained in circulation despite attempts to censor it, the ANC had disappeared for many students.

The term Black Consciousness partly stems from academic W. E. B. DuBois's evaluation of the double consciousness of black Americans, analyzing the internal conflict that black, or subordinated, people experience living in an oppressive society. He echoed black nationalist Martin Delany's insistence that black people take pride in their blackness as an important step in their liberation. This line of thought was also reflected by Marcus Garvey, philosopher Alain Locke and in the Paulette and Jane Nardal salons in Paris. Biko's understanding of these thinkers was further shaped through the lens of postcolonial thinkers such as Frantz FanonLéopold Senghor, and Aimé Césaire.

Biko reflects the concern for the existential struggle of the black person as a human being, dignified and proud of his blackness, despite the oppression of colonialism. This global movement of black thinkers aimed to build black and African consciousness, which they felt had been suppressed under colonialism.

Part of the insight of the Black Consciousness Movement was in understanding that black liberation would not only come from imagining and fighting for structural political changes, as older movements like the ANC did but also from psychological transformation in the minds of black people themselves. This analysis suggested that black people had to believe in the value of their blackness to take power. If black people believed in democracy but did not believe in their values, they would not truly be committed to gaining power.

Along these lines, Biko saw the struggle to build African consciousness as having two stages: "Psychological liberation" and "Physical liberation." While at times Biko embraced the non-violent tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., this was not because Biko fully embraced their spiritually-based philosophies of non-violence. Instead, Biko knew that for his struggle to give rise to physical liberation, it needed to exist within the political and military realities of the apartheid regime, in which the armed power of the white government outmatched that of the black majority. Thus, Biko's non-violence was a tactic more than a personal conviction. However, along with political action, a major component of the Black Consciousness Movement was its Black Community Programs, which included organizing community medical clinics, aiding entrepreneurs, and holding "consciousness" classes and adult education literacy classes.

Another important component of psychological liberation was to embrace blackness by insisting that black people lead movements of black liberation. This meant rejecting the fervent "non-racialism" of the ANC in favor of asking whites to understand and support, but not to take leadership in, the Black Consciousness Movement. A parallel in the United States, where student leaders of later phases of SNCC, and black nationalists such as Malcolm X, rejected white participation in organizations that intended to build black power.

While the ANC viewed white participation in its struggle as part of enacting the non-racial future for which it was fighting, the Black Consciousness view was that even well-intentioned white people often re-enacted the paternalism of the society in which they lived. This view held that in a profoundly racialized society, black people first had to liberate themselves and gain psychological, physical, and political power before "non-racial" organizations could truly be non-racial.

Biko's BCM had much in common with other African nationalist movements of the time, such as Amílcar Cabral and the Black Panther Party. Black Consciousness' origins were also rooted in Christianity. In 1966, under the incumbent Archbishop Robert Selby Taylor, the Anglican Church convened a meeting that led to the foundation of the University Christian Movement (UCM). This was to become the vehicle for Black Consciousness. The BCM attacked what they saw as traditional white values, especially the "condescending" values of white people of liberal opinion. They refused to engage white liberal opinions on the pros and cons of black consciousness.

They emphasized the rejection of white monopoly on truth as a central tenet of their movement. While this philosophy initially generated disagreement amongst black anti-Apartheid activists within South Africa, most soon adopted it as a positive development. As a result, there emerged a greater cohesiveness and solidarity amongst black groups in general, bringing black consciousness to the forefront of the anti-Apartheid struggle within South Africa. The BCM's policy of perpetually challenging the dialectic of Apartheid South Africa as a means of transforming Black thought into rejecting prevailing opinion or mythology to attain a larger comprehension brought it into direct conflict with the full force of the security apparatus of the Apartheid regime.

"Black man, you are on your own" became the rallying cry as mushrooming activity committees implemented what was to become a relentless campaign of a challenge to what was then referred to by the BCM as "the System." It eventually sparked a confrontation on June 16, 1976, in the Soweto uprising, when Black children marched to protest linguistic imperialism and coercive Afrikaans medium education in the townships. In response, South African Security Forces fatally shot 176 child protesters and outrage and unrest spread like wildfire throughout the country. Although it successfully implemented a system of comprehensive local committees to facilitate organized resistance, the BCM was decimated by security action against its leaders and social programs.

By June 19, 1976, 123 key members had been banned and assigned to internal exile in remote rural districts. In 1977 all BCM-related organizations were banned, many of its leaders arrested, and their social programs dismantled under provisions of the newly Implemented Internal Security Amendment Act. On September 12, 1977, its banned National Leader, Steve Bantu Biko, died from injuries that resulted from a brutal assault while in the custody of the South African Security Police.

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

Fast breaks, Lay up, With Mercury’s Insignia on our sneakers, We outmaneuvered the footwork Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot Swish of strings like silk Ten feet out. ... SLAM, DUNK, & HOOK by Yusef Komunyakaa.
Read More