Stokely Carmichael (born 1941) was a "militant" civil rights activist and stood at the forefront of the "Black Power" movement. He soared to fame by popularizing the phrase "Black Power" and was one of the most powerful and influential leaders in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Stokely Carmichael was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on June 29, 1941. His father, Adolphus, who died when he was in his late forties, moved with Stokely's mother, Mabel, to the United States when their son was only two-years-old. Although his father had been swept up by the cause of Trinidad's independence, he left his homeland to better his family's economic fortunes and moonlighted as a New York City cab driver, while Mabel found work as a maid. Young Carmichael was left in the care of two aunts and his grandmother and attended Tranquillity Boy's School. Carmichael joined his parents in New York City's Harlem when he was eleven-years-old and became the only black member of a street gang called the Morris Park Dukes. His status as a foreigner and his self-described "hip" demeanor assured him of popularity among many of his liberal, affluent white schoolmates. He said in an interview with Life that he dated white girls and attended parties on swank Park Avenue during this period. But Carmichael, a bright student, settled down after his family moved to the Bronx and he discovered the lure of intellectual life. After his parents moved to the Bronx, he was admitted to the Bronx High School of Science, a school for gifted youths.
Carmichael was interested in politics even then, especially the work of African-American socialist Bayard Rustin, whom he heard speak many times. At one point, he volunteered to help Rustin organize African-American workers in a paint factory. But the friendliness, doctrinal and otherwise, of Rustin and other African-American intellectual leftists with the white liberal establishment would eventually alienate Carmichael.
Joined Civil Rights Movement
While he was in school the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The Supreme Court had declared that school segregation was illegal, and African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, successfully desegregated the city's busses through a yearlong boycott. During Carmichael's senior year in high school, four African-American freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural Camp; Technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged a sit-in at the white-only lunch counter in Woolworth's.
The action of these young students captured the imagination of African-Americans and some sympathetic white students throughout the United States. Some young people in New York City, including Carmichael, joined a boycott of the city's Woolworth stores which was sponsored by the youth division of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). CORE hoped that the boycott would pressure Woolworth's owners to desegregate all of its stores' facilities throughout the country. Carmichael traveled to Virginia and South Carolina to join anti-discrimination sit-ins and because of his growing sensitivity to the plight of African-Americans in the United States, especially in the segregated South, he refused offers to attend white colleges and decided to study at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C.
At Howard from 1960 to 1964, Carmichael majored in philosophy while becoming increasingly involved in the civil rights movement. He joined a local organization called the Non-Violent Action Group which was affiliated with an Atlanta-based civil rights organization, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, called "Snick"). During his summers or whenever there was free time, Carmichael traveled South to join with the Congress of Racial Equality sponsored "freedom riders," composed of integrated groups riding interstate busses in an attempt to make the federal government enforce statutes which provided that interstate busses and bus terminals be desegregated. In bus depots there were separate toilet facilities for blacks and whites with signs that read something like "white ladies here, colored women in the rear."
Many southern whites were violently hostile to the efforts of these young people to force desegregation on them, and some of the freedom rider busses were bombed or burned. The riders were often beaten and jailed. A CORE leader remarked that for the seasoned freedom riders, jail was not a new experience, but that the determined exuberance of the young freedom riders was a shock to the jailers in Mississippi and other southern states. In the spring of 1961, when Carmichael was 20, he spent 49 days in a Jackson, Mississippi jail. One observer said that Carmichael was so rebellious during this period that the sheriff and prison guards were relieved when he was released.
After graduating in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, Carmichael stayed in the South as much as possible, sitting-in, picketing, helping with voter registration drives, and working alongside of other leaders of SNCC. He was especially active in Lowndes County, Alabama, where he helped found the Lowndes County Freedom Party, a political party that chose a black panther as its symbol in order to comply with a state requirement that all political parties must have a visual symbol to assist voters. The black panther was indigenous to Alabama and seemed both a dignified symbol for empowered African-Americans and an effective response to the white rooster that symbolized the Alabama Democratic party. Southern response to the civil rights workers was often so violent that demonstrators were bruised, wounded, or even killed by policemen, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, or other individuals. There were six civil rights workers murdered that year, but this only made Carmichael, and others, more determined than ever to work for desegregation.
Turning From Non-Violence
The turning point in Carmichael's experience came as he watched from his locked hotel room while outside, African-American demonstrators were beaten and shocked with cattle prods by police. The horrified Carmichael began to scream and could not stop. As his activism deepened and he saw the violence doled out to violent and non-violent protesters alike, he began to distance himself from non-violent tactics and its proponents, including Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1965, after Carmichael replaced the moderate John Lewis as the president of the SNCC, he joined Martin Luther King, Jr., Floyd McKissick of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and James Meredith, who had been the first African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi, on a "freedom march" in Mississippi which Meredith had first attempted alone. After he was shot during his solitary march, Meredith welcomed the help of other civil rights leaders. Carmichael and McKissick had trouble agreeing with King that the march would be non-violent and interracial. Carmichael had become increasingly hostile to the aid offered by white civil rights workers. During this march, Carmichael began to articulate his views about "Black Power" before the assembled television cameras. Americans reacted strongly to a slogan that seemed to indicate that African-Americans wanted to replace white supremacy with African-American supremacy. Carmichael later defined "Black Power" to mean the right of African-Americans to define and organize themselves as they saw fit and to protect themselves from racial violence. After the march, white members of the SNCC were not encouraged to stay and Carmichael and other SNCC leaders began to talk about "revolution."
Carmichael's articulation of "Black Power" evidenced by his 1967 book Black Power (co-written with Charles V. Hamilton), and his article "What We Want" advanced the idea that mere integration was not the answer to American racism, and that America formed only a piece in the puzzle. Carmichael and Hamilton linked the struggle for African-American empowerment definitively to economic self-determination domestically and the end of imperialism and colonialism worldwide. "What We Want" described the need for African-American communal control of African-American resources.
The term "Black Power," however disconcerting to moderate African-American leaders, absolutely terrified mainstream whites; many interpreted this term to mean not empowerment, but rather African-American domination and possibly even race war. Journalists demanded repeatedly that Carmichael define the phrase, and he soon began to believe that no matter what his explanation, they would interpret it as sinister. Pressed by Life magazine, Carmichael said "For the last time, 'Black Power' means black people coming together to form a political force and either electing representatives or forcing their representatives to speak their needs [rather than relying on established parties]. 'Black Power' doesn't mean anti-white, violence, separatism or any other racist things the press says it means. It's saying 'Look buddy, we're not laying a vote on you unless you lay so many schools, hospitals, playgrounds and good jobs on us."' However, Carmichael sometimes gave the term a different spin when he spoke to African-American audiences. As James Haskins recorded in his book, Profiles In Black Power (1972), Carmichael explained to one crowd, "When you talk of 'Black Power,' you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created." Through statements like this, Carmichael and his movement continued to be seen by many in mainstream America as a movement not to build, but to destroy.
As the revolutionary fervor of the 1960s deepened, the SNCC became a "Black Power" vehicle, more or less replacing the hymn-singing integration of earlier days. Yet Carmichael had gone as far as he could with the organization, deciding not to run for re-election as its leader in 1967, just before the organization fell apart. Carmichael's political emphasis had shifted as well; he began speaking out not only against the war in Vietnam, but against what he called U.S. imperialism worldwide. Time reported that Carmichael had traveled the world denouncing his adopted country, speaking to cheering crowds in Cuba, and declaring, "We do not want peace in Vietnam. We want the Vietnamese people to defeat the United States." Time called him a purveyor of "negritude and nihilism" and noted that many U.S. politicians wanted to jail him for sedition upon his return to the country he called "hell."
Upon his return in 1968, U.S. marshals confiscated his passport. Meanwhile, the radical Oakland, California-based Black Panther Party, a Black group which advocated African-American liberation by "any means necessary," had made him their honorary prime minister. He would resign from that post the following year, rejecting Panther coalitions with white activists. He based himself in Washington, D.C. and continued to speak around the country. In March of 1968, he announced his engagement to South African singer-activist Miriam Makeba. They were wed two months later and the Tanzanian ambassador to the United States hosted their reception. They were permitted to honeymoon abroad after they promised not to visit any "forbidden" countries; even so, many nations refused them entrance. In 1969, Carmichael left the United States for Conakry, Republic of Guinea, in West Africa. He moved there, in part, to assist in the restoration to power of the deposed Ghanaian ruler Kwame Nkrumah, who lived in Guinea and served as an exponent of the sort of anti-imperialist, pan-African empowerment Carmichael had espoused in the United States.
While in Guinea, Carmichael took the name Kwame Ture and, over the next decades, founded the All-African Revolutionary Party and continued to speak as an advocate of revolution to answer the problems of racism and injustice. In 1993, speaking at Michigan State University, he made it clear that he still considered capitalism the source of most of the problems he had been studying during his career as an activist. In a Michigan Chronicle interview he stated, "Those who labor do not enjoy the fruits of their labor, we know that to be slavery," but his 1992 afterward to a new edition of Black Power showed that he felt real progress had been made in certain respects in the U.S., "From 1965 to 1992, no one could deny that change has occurred."
In 1996 Carmichael was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was honored by his birth nation with a $1,000 a month grant, awarded to him by the government of Trinidad and Tobago. Benefits in Denver, New York, and Atlanta were also held to help pay his medical expenses.
Steeped in the civil rights struggle, Carmichael emerged as one of the firebrands of the African-American militant movement in the 1960s, and unlike many of his compatriots from that time, he has in the intervening years experienced neither burnout nor conversion; the years have only refined the flame of his convictions, even in the face of cancer.
He continues to advance revolution to answer the problems of racism and unfairness. "Since we shed blood continually and sporadically and in a disorganized manner for reforms," he stated in his afterward to Black Power, "let us permanently organize ourselves and make Revolution."
Further Reading on Stokely Carmichael
Carmichael discussed his views in Black Power; the Politics of Liberation in America (1967), co-authored with Charles V. Hamilton, and in Stokely Speaks: Black Power to Pan-Africanism (1971). Several authors have written about the history of SNCC. Two examples are Howard Zinn SNCC, The New Abolitionists (1964) and Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell The River of No Return, the Autobiography of a Black Militant in the Life and Death of SNCC (1973).
Further information on Carmichael and his views can be found in James Haskins Profiles in Black Power (1972), Jacqueline Johnson Stokely Carmichael: The Story of Black Power (1990), Milton Viorst Fire in the Streets (1979), and Robert Weisbrot Freedom Bound: A History of America's Civil Rights Movement (1990). For information on Carmichael's views in his own words, see the May 19, 1967 issue of Life, the February 24, 1993 issue of the Michigan Chronicle, the August 5, 1966 issue of the New York Times, and the December 15, 1967 issue of Time. Additional biographical material on Carmichael can be found in the April 14, 1996 issue of the New York Times, the February 8, 1992 issue of the Chicago Defender, and the March 30, 1997 issue of the Denver Post.