A friend of mine asked today whether any of us knew when the slogan Power to the People! started being used. It seemed like an easy thing to look up. It wasn’t.
To start with, the actual phrase of four words is one that turns up now and then going back a very long way. But we don’t actually care about the first time anyone put those four words in order—we want to know when it started being used as an anti-establishment slogan. So knowing that someone in the nineteenth century discussed the possibility of entrusting power to the people of a nation is nice and all, but not really to the purpose. Still less is it helpful to find the conquerors endeavouring to render every service in their power to the people whom they had subdued. In the general time period we’re looking at (the 1960s) there also references to, for instance, bringing electric power to the people of a particular region by means of a proposed dam or plant. There were also, perhaps more significantly, references to transferring power to the people of a former colony from the former colonial power—the actual four words in question appear in a 1967 UN resolution on the question of Southern Rhodesia and the people of Zimbabwe.
But we are still a long way from what we’re looking for. When did Power to the People! start to be used as a slogan? When was it chalked up on walls and chanted at rallies?
Alas, I don’t have an answer. The databases I have access to have some substantial gaps, particularly in mid-20th-century newspapers and magazines. Harrumph.
Here’s what I have: according to an April 1969 article in the Hartford Courant, a meeting of the Black Panthers was concluded by Jose Gonsalves (CT State Black Panther Captain) saying “All Power to the People. Black Power to Black People. Panther Power to the vanguard.” By a few months later, there is a banner with “All Power to the People” on it at Black Panther events. This is nearly the slogan we looking for—this is the version I associate with the Black Panthers, while the Power to the People! slogan is something I associate with the larger counter-culture. But in the Spring of 1969, it is not immediately recognizable to the Courant’s writer.
Less than two years later, John Lennon writes and records the song. According to his later interviews, this was a result of mixing with Tariq Ali and the International Marxist Group, who were Trotskyites. I found some references to the phrase in the UK Left around that time, mostly in reference to reform of the council estates—were the British Trots connecting with the Black Panthers? Also in 1971, Eugene Record and the Chi-Lites recorded “Give More Power to the People”—released after Lennon wrote his song but before it was released. Both songs charted. Coincidence? Or had the phrase entered the counter-cultural vocabulary in both England and the US by that point? Or, intriguingly, were both African-American activists and British Leftists picking up a phrase from the anti-colonial activists in Anglophone Africa? Both organizations were definitely looking to Africa at that time, from somewhat different angles, of course.
So that’s where I’m at. If any of y’all have more information—in particular, if y’all have searchable newspaper and magazine archives from 1968-1970 that might reveal when the graffiti starts showing up—I’d love to know about it.