Charles V. Hamilton, an Apostle of ‘Black Power,’ Dies at 94

Charles V. Hamilton, a philosophical godfather of the Black Power movement, which he envisioned as the means to subvert what he stigmatized as America’s “institutional racism,” died on Nov. 18 in Chicago, it was recently confirmed. He was 94.

A friend and colleague, the South African educator Wilmot James, said he learned of the death from a representative of Dr. Hamilton’s bank. Dr. Hamilton’s nephew Kevin Lacey said it had not been previously announced because Dr. Hamilton was a private and modest man and was “concerned about what would and would not happen upon his passing.”

In 1967, Dr. Hamilton, a political scientist at historically Black colleges, and Stokely Carmichael (who later adopted the name Kwame Ture), a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, discombobulated the multiracial anti-discrimination crusade that was radiating from the South to Northern cities at the time by publishing the manifesto “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation.”

Their book convulsed moderate and more conciliatory Black groups like the N.A.A.C.P. nearly as much as it confounded the white liberals who had traditionally supported civil rights. Moreover, its conclusion that racism was embedded in the nation’s institutions further antagonized white people who had opposed any preferences for Black people in government policies to mitigate discrimination in housing, jobs, public accommodations and education.

“Chuck was very definitely the intellectual alter ego to Stokely Carmichael,” his friend Jeh C. Johnson, the former secretary of homeland security, said in an interview. “He was not a screamer, he was not a rebel. He was a quiet, dignified, soft-spoken, very progressive intellect behind the Black Power movement. He was content to have Stokely as the out-front person on their book.”

The strategy they envisioned was radical but nonviolent. It depended initially on Black people recognizing their own self-worth and uniting behind a common agenda. His “most important contribution to American history,” Dr. Hamilton later said, was his exhortation in the book that “before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks.”

That reference to closing ranks did not imply that he had given up on integration and was sounding a call for separatism. Rather, he said, for Black people to belong to mainstream America, they had “to understand that we are Black people and not ashamed of that.”

Black Power must “work to establish legitimate new institutions that make participants, not recipients, out of a people traditionally excluded from the fundamentally racist processes of this country,” he said, and institutions in Black communities must be led by Black people “as a challenge to the myth that Black people are incapable of leadership.”

“The point we are trying to make in this book is that one’s individual stance in relationship to the Black man is irrelevant,” he told Studs Terkel in a radio interview in 1967. “It’s what the system does, and that’s why we use the term ‘institutional racism’.”

While he emphasized that “Black Power is a developmental process” and “cannot be an end in itself,” he insisted that viable coalitions between Black and white people would be sustainable only when white Americans agreed that those goals benefited the common good.

“Equitable distribution of power must come from mutual self-interest, not altruism or guilt feelings,” Dr. Hamilton wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1968.

“It must be clear by now,” he continued, “that any society which has been color-conscious all its life to the detriment of a particular group cannot simply become colorblind and expect that group to compete on equal terms,” he said.

“Black Power” was considered so incendiary that its publisher, Random House, insisted on a disclaimer of sorts, just before the table of contents: “This book presents a political framework and ideology which represents the last reasonable opportunity for this society to work out its racial problems short of prolonged destructive guerrilla warfare. That such violent warfare may be unavoidable is not herein denied. But if there is the slightest chance to avoid it, the politics of Black Power as described in this book is seen as the only viable hope.”

Less than a decade later, working within the Democratic Party as a strategist, Dr. Hamilton was criticized by more militant Black people when he urged that the 1976 party platform be “deracialized” and promote benefits for disadvantaged people regardless of their color — an echo of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s recommendation in 1970 that the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.”

He meant that the repercussions of institutional racism — a term he popularized — should be addressed without mentioning race specifically, to avoid a backlash from white voters, and that common ground be found to bring poor Black and white people together.

Charles Vernon Hamilton was born in Muskogee, Okla., on Oct. 19, 1929, 10 days before the stock market crashed, heralding the Depression. His father, Owen, was a garage mechanic. His mother, Viola (Haynes) Hamilton, brought Charles, his older brother and younger sister., to Chicago’s South Side in 1935.

He aspired to be a journalist, but he realized the opportunities for him in that profession as a Black man were few. He figured the civil service meant security, so he gravitated toward an interest in government. He would later serve as a foot soldier in Richard J. Daley’s Cook County Democratic machine and work for the post office between teaching jobs.

After serving in the military in the late 1940s when President Harry S. Truman integrated the armed forces, he graduated from Roosevelt University in Chicago with a degree in political science in 1951. He then enrolled in law school but did not stay there long, instead earning a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1957.

In 1958, he joined the faculty of the historically Black Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. His contract was terminated in 1960.

“I was too radical,” he recalled in 2021. “I got fired from Tuskegee because I was teaching the kids how to contact Congress and march and protest.”

“I never wanted to be just a professor,” he said in an interview with the Annual Review of Political Science in 2018. “No, that was not it. I wanted to turn my academic life into an activist one.”

He returned to the University of Chicago, where he earned his doctorate in 1964. He then taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Roosevelt University before finding his home in 1969 at Columbia University in New York, where he was named the Wallace S. Sayre professor of government and political science.

He lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., and retired from the Columbia faculty in 1998. While he had eventually hoped to move to South Africa, he lived in assisted-care facilities in the New York metropolitan area until he moved to Chicago to be closer to a niece.

Dr. Hamilton published a biography, “Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: The Political Biography of an American Dilemma,” in 1991. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Dr. Hamilton’s “diligent scholarship has uncovered more than a good book’s worth of Powell material.”

Dr. Hamilton later said that Mr. Powell, a Harlem congressman who was re-elected after he was ousted for ethics violations by the House of Representatives, was “a scoundrel.”

“We should’ve called him out, but we didn’t,” he said in 2018. “We protected him.”

Among Dr. Hamilton’s other books was “The Dual Agenda: Race and Social Welfare Policies of Civil Rights Organizations” (1997), which he wrote with his wife, Dona Cooper Hamilton, a professor at Lehman College in New York. She died in 2015.

He is survived by a stepdaughter, Valli Hamilton. His daughter, Carol, who was press secretary to Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, died in 1996 when a plane carrying Mr. Brown and others crashed in Croatia.

In “Black Power,” Dr. Hamilton and Mr. Carmichael challenged the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s premise that there was an “American dilemma” between the nation’s liberal ideals and the miserable conditions in which so many Black people lived. If anything, the authors suggested, most Americans subordinated conscience to quotidian self-interest.

“The fact is that people live their daily lives making practical day-to-day decisions about their jobs, homes, children,” they wrote. “And in a profit-oriented, materialistic society, there is little time to reflect on creeds, especially if it could mean more job competition, ‘lower property values,’ and the ‘daughter marrying a Negro.’

“There is no ‘American dilemma,’ no moral hangup,” Dr. Hamilton and Mr. Carmichael wrote, “and Black people should not base decisions on the assumption that a dilemma exists.”

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