It wasn't just militancy. The black power movement acutely questioned American society's failures, and still inspires today
Like the 1960s black power movement of which he was a figurehead, Amiri Baraka, who died on Thursday aged 79, is widely condemned in America as a promoter of black supremacy, zealotry and violence. The reality is less straightforward. Baraka embodied the tragic contradictions of a movement that was far more complex than its sensationalized historical image suggests.
In common with his idol, who was born Malcolm Little, and who became the small-time pimp and burglar "Detroit Red" before re-emerging as Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka was a master of self-reinvention. Indeed, Baraka went even further than Malcolm in his rituals of personal and political metamorphosis.
First he was Everett Leroy Jones, born in 1934 to a middle-class black family in Newark, New Jersey. Then he was LeRoi Jones, a precocious bohemian poet who fraternised with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso during the late 1950s in New York's downtown avant-garde arts scene.
By 1968 he was Imamu Amiri Baraka, one of the most prominent black power leaders in the United States, whose "Swahilized" name was intended to signal a complete rejection of white culture. And from 1975, he was Chairman Amiri Baraka, this time the leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, a Maoist sect that rejected racial dogma and stood for economic and racial equality through the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism.
To most of the American media, however, his image remained freeze-framed as the Afro-wearing black power militant of the late sixties and early seventies, the "snarling laureate of Negro revolt", as Time magazine called him in 1967.
What complicates the media's picture – and what historians have only recently begun to reconstruct – is that behind the surface image of angry "hate whitey" spokesmen preaching violent retribution, black power was a movement posing a number of acute questions about the failures of American society, and offering some creative answers.
There was a reckless, grandstanding streak to many of black power's most visible leaders and publicists, Baraka among them. Scornful of the image of respectability crafted by civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins, black power's figureheads often revelled in a politics of threat and insult.
Some taunted their perceived opponents with viciously homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks, not least Baraka himself ("I got the extermination blues, jewboys. I got / the hitler syndrome figured", he wrote in one notorious poem of the mid-sixties). But away from the public eye there was another side to black power, and to Baraka himself.
The movement took root on ground that mainstream civil rights organisations had largely left vacant, particularly in the black communities of America's deindustrialising northern cities. Newark, where Baraka became the leading activist, officially had the nation's worst housing, highest crime rate, second highest infant mortality rate, and seventh-largest number of drug addicts. It was the epitome of what commentators called the "urban crisis", and it was a crisis experienced disproportionately by African Americans, as whites increasingly fled to the prosperous, racially exclusive suburbs.
For activists in cities like Newark, black power was not the sinister yet ultimately empty slogan it was so widely presumed to be. Black power meant using the concentration of black people in urban areas to take control of the local institutions that affected their lives: the school boards, welfare agencies and city halls. Baraka and his black power organisation, the Committee for Unified Newark, were instrumental in registering and mobilizing black and Puerto Rican voters in 1970 to elect Newark's first black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.
In many communities, black power groups stepped in to provide vital services to impoverished people abandoned by the state. The Black Panther Party's "Survival Program" included free breakfasts for schoolchildren, free medical testing and treatment, and free legal services. There was also a surprisingly conservative, even puritanical side to a movement often perceived as anarchic and hedonistic. A young man who returned to Newark after serving in Vietnam later remembered:
Imamu Baraka made a speech, I will never forget it. It was dealing with morality, like cleaning up your lifestyle – drinking and smoking and all this type of stuff.
He joined Baraka's organisation, took the name Saidi Nguvu, and "never smoked a day since. That was the impact it had on me". His first assignment was "to go out and organize tenant groups to alleviate the conditions in the housing projects. To get better service, elevators, all that kind of stuff". Not, then, the stuff of black power's media legend.
Targeted with infiltration, harassment and lethal violence by the police and FBI, most black power organisations were reduced to a shell by the mid-1970s. As Baraka himself concluded, the new class of black city politicians and bureaucrats ushered into office on the coattails of the movement often drifted into the cynical urban politics of business-as-usual.
But in spite of its failures and shortcomings, thousands of minority and poor activists are still inspired by the black power movement to continue waging daily struggles for dignity and social justice in communities ravaged by neglect and decay.