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Are We Overlooking The Black Power Behind Obama?

A year ago this week, Barack Obama stood on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to take the presidential oath of office.

That moment was described throughout the media as the climax of a journey that began 46 years earlier, at the other end of the National Mall, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But Peniel Joseph, a historian at Tufts University, says not enough attention has been paid to the other main line of succession in African-American leadership — the one that leads from Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and the black power movement.

"The connection between black power and Barack Obama doesn't fit a neat and simplistic national narrative about the success and evolution of the civil rights struggle," Joseph tells NPR's Guy Raz.

In his latest book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, Joseph argues that the black nationalists have been too easily dismissed as a formative force.

"Black power is usually characterized as a movement of gun-toting militants who practice politics without portfolio," he says, "and drag down a more promising movement for social justice, the civil rights movement."

That image, Joseph says, forced President Obama to distance himself from those roots.

"The president and the popular media don't often look at the quieter side of black power, the pragmatic side," he says, pointing out that Malcolm X and Carmichael both started their public careers as community organizers — a path that Obama took 30 years later.

"Malcolm X is the quintessential, self-made African-American political activist," Joseph says.

After a troubled childhood and his father's death at the hands of a lynch mob, Malcolm X spent six years in prison. He emerged in 1952 as a member of the Nation of Islam and quickly grew into a national spokesman for the more militant wing of the civil rights movement.

Malcolm X was gunned down in 1965, a few years after leaving the Nation of Islam. A year later, Stokely Carmichael coined the term "black power," and the group of activists he created was rechristened the Black Panthers.

So how would those two leaders have viewed the country's first African-American president?

"They would have looked at this as a mixed blessing," Joseph says. "On the one hand, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael would have been impressed by Obama's self-determination. ... At the same time, both would have criticized the president for a reluctance to talk about racial matters and for a reluctance to really use the presidency as a bully pulpit" to address specific African-American issues.

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